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May 1, 2009

Checks and balances in Supreme Court nominations – Lesson Plan

By Greg Timmons, teacher and Executive Director of The Constitution Project in Portland, Oregon


Civics, Current Events, Government, Social Studies

Estimated Time:

Two to three class periods

Grade Level



  • Students will understand the system of Separation of Powers/Checks and Balances related to recent events prompting action by one or more of the three branches of government.
  • Students will understand the process for selecting and confirming a Supreme Court justice and how participation by the other two branches helps maintain the balance of power.
  • Students will examine real life circumstances related to the constitutional operation of the judicial selection process and understand how partisan politics can play a role in the process.


With Justice Souter’s recent announcement that he will step down at the end of the term President Obama has to nominate a replacement justice. This lesson examines different aspects of the balance of power among the branches and the process of judicial nomination and confirmation: 1) how the court (and the entire judicial system) are an important part of the system of checks and balances; 2) the process for selecting members to the judiciary and how selection process is a fundamental part of the separation of powers/checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution; 3) the political and sometimes partisan side of the confirmation process that involves different philosophies of constitutional interpretation and jurisprudence.

The lesson is divided up into three steps. These can be modified at the teacher’s discretion. There is also a list of vocabulary words that are used in Part III which students should know before the activities are conducted.


Part I: Declare Your Powers

This first activity helps students understand the dynamics of separation of powers/checks and balances and how the factors interplay with current issues. The chart depicting the separation of powers/checks and balances can be passed out as homework the day before the activity starts.

  1. Divide students into three large groups. Then have each group separate into smaller groups of two or three. Pass out Handout 1: “Declare Your Powers” and have students review the directions and the chart in their small groups.
  2. Rearrange students back into the three large groups. Have them move together in their groups so that there is space between each group. Designate each group to be one of the three branches of government.
  3. Review the following circumstances with the class asking the student groups to raise their hands when they hear a circumstance where their branch has power to act. Then ask the other two groups to determine if they have the power to “check” the branch exercising their power and what power would they exercise to check that branch. (Check answer key for results)


  1. Homeland Security officials have been ordered to open suspicious packages they believe might be from terrorists.
  2. A bill recently passed to allow citizens to choose their own health care plan under Medicare.
  3. The United States has signed a peace treaty with Iran.
  4. A law, recently passed in a state legislature banning gay marriages, is being challenged as unconstitutional.
  5. A bill is passed outlawing American citizens from making contributions to Middle East charitable organizations.
  6. A replacement suggestion for the position of Attorney General has been given to Congress.
  7. A recent law closing a tax reduction for U.S. companies establishing off shore companies is ruled constitutional…
  8. A recent bill to increase funding for education was passed again after it was rejected.
  9. A health care insurance company has been ordered to pay for additional treatment requested by a patient.

Part II – The process for selecting and confirming a Supreme Court Justice

  1. In this activity students will review the process of selecting justices to the Supreme Court. Distribute Handout 2: “Supreme Court Confirmation Flow Chart” to students and review the Supreme Court Confirmation Process.
  2. Then have students work in pairs or trios to complete the chart on Handout 2 that shows the steps a candidate must go through in order to be confirmed. This is primarily a reading-comprehension exercise, so it might be a good idea to work with students to make sure they identify all the steps and provide adequate descriptions of the process. Refer to the answer key for results. This activity could be done as homework.

Extension Activities

  1. Students can find further examples of Separation of Powers/Checks and Balances by reviewing the newspaper for articles that feature one or more of the branches in action. They can clip the articles, write a summary and identify which branch is exercising power and what branch might “check” that power.
  2. For students to get a better understanding of the partisan politics surrounding the nomination process, students can conduct their own selection for Cabinet or Supreme Court nominees. Additional information on the two opposing viewpoints can be found at the Alliance for Justice and The Committee for Justice.

Greg Timmons is a teacher, curriculum writer and Executive Director of The Constitution Project in Portland, Oregon He has taught middle school and secondary Social Studies for over 30 years, wrote lessons and directed institutes on U.S. Constitution related issues. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Oregon Council for the Social studies.

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
    • Standard 5: Understands the major characteristics of systems of shared powers and of parliamentary systems
    • Standard 20: Understands the roles of political parties, campaigns, elections, and associations and groups in American politics
    • Language Arts
    • Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts
    • Listening and Speaking
    • Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes
    • Viewing
    • Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media
    • Working with Others
    • Standard 1: Contributes to the overall effort of a group
    • Standard 4: Displays effective interpersonal communication skills

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