Overview
Through this lesson, the student will come to understand the history and role of the Supreme Court, particularly in light of famous court rulings and the make up of the court.

Background
The United States Supreme Court was officially established with the ratification of the Constitution in 1789. The Constitution, however, does not go into great detail about the Court's function so, much consideration has been necessary in the past two centuries to determine its purview.

The Supreme Court is the highest court in the nation, and therefore is the primary overseer of the judicial branch of the government, which, alongside the legislative branch and executive branch, is a key component of a system of checks and balances.

Compared to the other two branches, though, the Supreme Court's responsibilities are relatively straightforward, with its most significant being judicial review. This process imbues the Court with the awesome power of determining whether existing laws are unconstitutional.

Yet the concept of judicial review is not directly expressed in the Constitution. It was envisioned and articulated by Chief Justice John Marshall in 1803 in the landmark case Marbury v. Madison.

Marshall saw it as critical to a working democracy that the Court possesses the ability to determine a law's constitutionality; otherwise, the legislative branch, which creates the laws, would hold too much power, or in the words of Marshall, have a "real and practical omnipotence."

The constitution does not stipulate how many justices may sit on the bench, but since 1869 the Supreme Court has maintained nine -one chief justice and eight associate justices. When a vacancy appears, a new justice is appointed by the president and approved by a majority vote in the Senate. An odd number is needed to break ties.

Once appointed, the justices serve for life, unless illness, retirement or illegal or unethical conduct force them out (the latter of which has never been done in the Court's history).

The Court's process of determining a law unconstitutional is remarkably long and thorough. First, the Court must select cases to consider that are submitted from the lower courts. In the eyes of the justices, these cases must present a vital constitutional issue.

Next, the Court closely reviews briefs submitted by the lawyers representing the individual cases. Then, the lawyers present oral arguments to the Court for further consideration of the case, during which the justices participate in intensive analysis and discussion.

Lastly, the Court writes an opinion, which is a detailed explanation of the decision they reached in the case. This process is long and painstaking and usually involves considerable examination and reconsideration of the case.

Once an opinion is completed, it then becomes binding, or law.The document that results is referred to as majority opinion.

Overall, the Supreme Court has had an immeasurable impact on the American political system and way of life. Its existence has helped maintain fairness and balance in the United States government, and its decisions have in some way affected virtually every member of society.

MATERIALS

PDF -Background information

PDF - Glossary of relevant terms

PDF - Copy of Constitution

PDF - List of noteworthy cases

NewsHour Supreme Court Page
 

Procedure
1. Either individually or in groups, have the students carefully read the background information provided (printer-friendly PDF), the glossary of relevant terms (printer-friendly PDF) and Article III, section 1 of the Constitution.

2. Divide the class into groups of 3-4 students each.

3. Next, distribute the list of noteworthy Supreme Court cases (printer-friendly PDF) to each student.

4. Then ask the groups to determine the relevance of each decision to current society or to their own lives by using a scale of 1-5 (from critically important to insignificant).

5. After the groups have concluded on a number from the scale for a particular case, have them justify how they arrived at each decision (either orally to the class or in writing).

For example, one group may assign a "4" to Miranda v. Arizona and justify the decision by stating that since they themselves have never committed crimes before and have no intention of ever doing so, the case is insignificant to their lives.

However, another group may assign a "1" to the case, explaining that a young person must be informed of his/her rights at the point of arrest, no matter how minor the offense, to ensure his/her own due process (fair treatment) by the authorities. The group may also argue that mistakes can be made by law enforcement officials, and so knowing one's rights is crucial to protecting oneself from false or erroneous accusation.

Another group may assign Korematsu v. United States a "5," since they may see the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II as far removed from their current lives, while a different group may argue for it receiving a "2," since they could see possible analogues to the way certain foreigners are treated today in light of the country's concerns about terrorism.

6. Discuss the responses as a class, attempting to arrive at the understanding that each case is complex and, depending on social and historical forces, could have various applications to the world.

Extension Activities
Have students research the Supreme Court nominations from the last 5 presidents. Have the appointments been marked with any rancor? Do conservative presidents nominate conservative justices? Do the liberals nominate liberals? Are there any trends?
 

NATIONAL STANDARDS
 

For detailed explanations, please consult www.socialstudies.org/standards

Thematic Standards Standard

4: Individual Development and Identity Standard

5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions Standard

6: Power, Authority, and Governance Standard

10: Civic Ideals and Practices

Disciplinary Standards

Standard 1: History

Standard 3: Civics and Government

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