The Supreme Court has the power to interpret the Constitution. Its rulings on cases determine the meaning of laws and acts of Congress and the President. Knowing the key decisions of the Supreme Court and the precedents they set is vital in understanding the meaning of laws, how our country has changed over time, and the direction the country is currently headed.
Students will identify important Supreme Court cases, evaluate their decisions, explain the precedents they established, and analyze their importance to our society today.
- Supreme Court
- Checks and Balances
- Judicial Review
The length of this lesson will vary greatly depending on the number of cases or topics that you wish to cover at one time. It can take one class if you are analyzing one issue, such as the first amendment, or as many as five if you are analyzing every case/topic and evaluating the role of the Supreme Court in more depth.
This lesson is intended to allow students to obtain a greater understanding of key Supreme Court decisions, the precedents they set, and their effect on our society today. It can be conducted as a whole class activity, as group work, individually, or even as homework. You can use a single issue (such as the 1st Amendment) and analyze the decisions specifically in that area, or you can jigsaw the different topics by assigning a group to each topic, and then have them explain the issue, questions, and results to the rest of the class.
Students should have a basic understanding of the Supreme Court, its make-up, and its role in our government. Ensure students understand what a precedent is and how a Supreme Court decision has a greater impact beyond the case decided at that time. Explain that students will be researching a specific topic (such as the 1st Amendment or Federalism) and evaluating Supreme Court decisions on those topics. They will analyze how and if those decisions have evolved over time and their impact on the United States today.
- Introduce the key vocabulary terms, then view the following short video to provide a basic overview of the Supreme Court and activate students’ prior knowledge. Have the students answer the following questions individually, or as small groups:
A) What is the role of the Supreme Court?
B) What is a precedent?
C) In what way can the Supreme Court affect the meaning of a law or an aspect of the Constitution?
D) What are the pros and cons of having the Supreme Court determine the Constitutionality of laws and acts of Congress and the President?
Once they answer these questions, have them discuss in small groups and then as the entire class.
- Distribute the handouts (either one topic or all topics) to the students individually or as a group, depending on how you are structuring this unit. Show them how to access C-SPAN’s Supreme Court Interactive Timeline here. Open one of the case tabs to show students the layout which includes a short summary of the case, a video clip from C-SPAN, and questions regarding the case. Note that the questions on the interactive timeline are the same questions present on their worksheets.
Supreme Court Topic Worksheets (.PDF)
- Once the students or groups have finished reading the summaries, watching the videos, and answering the questions, share and discuss the cases as an entire class. Have each person or group present their findings on the case or group of cases they researched. Remaining students and groups can fill in the worksheets for the cases/categories they were not assigned as they are presented.
- Once all applicable cases/topics are completed, have each group answer the following questions:
A) Based on the Constitution, did the Supreme Court rule on your case(s) correctly? It is okay to have different answers for members of the group that may disagree.
B) What impact did the decision have on the United States at the time of the decision?
C) What impact does the decision have on the United States today?
D) Is this decision still the most current precedent on the topic? If not, what is the current precedent and why did it change?
E) How has the interpretation of this issue changed over time? Why has it evolved over the years?
- Once each group has finished, discuss the answers in class as a whole. For each question, have a member of each group share their response. Discuss any differences from groups that arise.
Have each student write an essay in which they evaluate the role of the Supreme Court, specifically in terms of the checks and balances process. Within the essay, students should examine and explain whether or not the Supreme Court has too much or too little power. Students should cite specific cases as examples for their position.
Students can pick a case on the current Supreme Court docket. They can research the background information of the case, the Constitutional issue, the arguments for each side, the current precedent or case law (if applicable) on the issue, and predict the outcome. Then, students can follow the case as it goes to the Supreme Court until the decision is made.