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Using Student-Related Issues to Study the Supreme Court

by Susan Hirsch

Checks and Balances
How Cases Reach the Court
Historical Cases
Relevant Cases for Students
Teaching Strategies

supreme court building


Teaching about the Supreme Court to high school students should be an exciting adventure for both students and teachers. Students need to be aware of the power of the Supreme Court Justices who make many decisions that affect all lives. This unit is one of my favorites to teach because the subject matter enables students to use critical thinking skills and allows the class atmosphere to be student-directed rather than teacher-directed.

I introduce the Supreme Court by discussing the need for laws and limits to our rights. The class has learned about the legislative and executive branches before we venture into the judicial branch. The birth of the Supreme Court should be taught before any new information is shared. Since students have previously learned about the Constitution, I remind them that Article III of the Constitution set up the U.S. Supreme Court and authorized Congress to create a network of federal courts to assist it. To keep the Court completely free from politics, the Constitution stated that federal judges were to be appointed for life. The Judiciary Act of 1789 spells out that the president names a Chief Justice and five Associate Justices to the Supreme Court with the approval of the Senate. The current Court composition of one Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices came into effect in 1948.

three branches of U.S. government buildings


Before learning how the Court operates and reviewing specific cases, students need a clear vision of the concept of checks and balances as recorded in the Constitution. The power of the U.S. government is constitutionally divided among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. The primary responsibility of the judicial branch, which includes the Supreme Court, is to interpret the laws as written in the Constitution. The Supreme Court can declare any law made by the legislative branch as unconstitutional and any presidential action as unconstitutional. This is the method in which the judicial branch checks on the legislative branch and the executive branch. All Justices are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. The checks-and-balances concept prevents any one branch from having too much power.

Ideas for teaching:

  • Students can make a chart listing the chief powers of each branch and indicating how each branch checks on the other branches. This graphic organizer will assist visual learners in understanding this difficult concept.
  • The teacher can do a role-play activity, with different students wearing nameplates identifying their branch and power. Different-colored yarn can be used to show the connections.
  • A kinesthetic activity can be done, with students given index cards listing specific duties, such as "approves presidential appointments" or "vetoes laws." Put up signs in different parts of the classroom that say "Executive," "Legislative," and "Judicial." Give each student a card, and ask him or her to go to the correct part of the room.

seal of the supreme court


Before students embark on learning how the Court works, the teacher needs to preteach the following vocabulary terms:

  • adversary
  • brief
  • concurring opinion
  • dissenting opinion
  • docket
  • judicial review
  • jurisdiction
  • majority opinion
  • precedent
  • quorum
  • writ of certiorari


Each year the Supreme Court receives 7,000 or so writs of certiorari, which are petitions from parties seeking review of their cases. Just because a party wants to take its case "all the way to the Supreme Court," does not mean the Court will necessarily hear the case. Instead, a case must pass through the Court's screening process, which includes a closed-session discussion. To be considered, a case must receive four votes. After the Justices give their approval for petitions to be heard before the Supreme Court, an open session is held, at which at least six Justices must be present to have a quorum. After the oral arguments, the Justices vote. After the vote, the most senior Justice in the majority assigns the task of writing the majority opinion. Likewise, the most senior Justice in the minority decides who will write the dissenting opinion. Each Justice may write his or her own statements if they wish, but the majority opinion speaks for the final decision of the Court.

To understand this concept, it is helpful to study the patterns of votes by each Justice. By doing this, students can infer the makeup of the Court: which Justices have liberal, moderate, or conservative leanings. Have students read majority and dissenting opinions of past and current Justices while studying different cases. This practice will allow you to point out the power of the President and to reinforce the principle of checks and balances: some presidents have caused a huge impact on American history with their Supreme Court appointments.

But in order for students to fully understand each case, they must know the steps that took place before the Justices received it. To assist in showing the movement of a case through the different courts, use a flowchart. The case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District is one of the best and simplest cases to use for your flowchart. This was the case in which three students—Christopher Eckhart and Mary Beth and John Tinker—wore black armbands with peace symbols painted on them to school in protest of the Vietnam War. School officials had announced beforehand that wearing these armbands was not permitted. The students were suspended and told not to return with the armbands. The Tinkers claimed that their rights of free speech and expression were protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution. After losing in the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals, the case was presented before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Tinkers won with a vote of 7–2, but there were limits put on their freedom at school. (Students can research this case at several Web sites.)

U.S. constitution


After the students understand how the Supreme Court operates, I introduce what I think are the historical cases that have had the most impact on American society. There are many different approaches on how to teach Supreme Court cases, which I will share with you later. In some cases, the lesson should be teacher-directed, and in others, the student-directed approach works. Given the many different learning styles, the teacher should vary the way the cases are taught and should make sure that all students understand the basic premise of the important ideas. As more and more social studies classes include all levels of learners, teachers need to use many different techniques to explain the material.

The cases I begin with are:

  • Marbury v. Madison
  • Dred Scott v. Sanford
  • Gibbons v. Ogden
  • McCulloch v. Maryland
  • Plessey v. Ferguson
  • Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
  • Miranda v. Arizona
  • Gideon v. Wainwright
  • Roe v. Wade
  • Korematsu v. United States

Background information and facts about these cases can be found in most textbooks. The following Web sites are also good sources.

  • FindLaw
    Reports Supreme Court cases from 1906 forward, searchable by case number, party name, and citation.
  • Legal Information Institute
    Contains direct links to specific cases and case summaries.

When I teach these cases, I want to make sure students understand that these are real people who have appealed the decision of a lower court. I always make sure they understand the facts of the case, which include the story of those involved. Storytelling is a great way to capture your audience's attention, and there is no better time in a government class than when you are teaching Supreme Court cases. Once the facts of the case are understood, the next most important aspect is the decision, which is what affects the future of American society. Most of the above cases are in the news often, as people question constitutional law and how it affects the everyday citizen, including your students. Use different forms of the media, including newspapers, magazines, TV news, and the Internet, to show the relevance of the decisions.

scales of justice


After I teach the above historical cases, I then teach those cases that have a practical application to the daily lives of students. The following are cases I would recommend:

  • In Re Gault (1966)—Gerald Gault was tried in juvenile court and given six years in a state juvenile detention center for an alleged obscene phone call. He did not receive counsel, a phone call, or the right to face his accuser or to cross-examine said accuser. The Court overturned the juvenile proceedings and required that states provide "some of the due process guarantees of adults." These include right to phone call, right to counsel, right to cross-examine, and right to confront the accuser. Also, juveniles must be advised of their right to remain silent.
  • Abington Township v. Schempp (1963)—A Pennsylvania statute required reading from the Bible each day as an all-school activity. A student could be excused from the Bible reading with a written note from a parent or guardian. The Schempp family, who had children in the Abington school system, disapproved of the Bible reading because it violated their religious beliefs. The family refused to write a letter to have their children excused and took legal action instead. When the case reached the Supreme Court, the Court agreed with the parents. The Court declared the law calling for "prayer in school" unconstitutional because it represented an establishment of religion by government. Stating that it was a direct violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, the Court prohibited Bible reading in public schools.
  • Tinker v. Des Moines School District (1969)—Three students wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. School officials had announced beforehand that these armbands were not permitted. The students were suspended for "disrupting the learning environment." The students' fathers filed a complaint against the suspension. The Court decided that students do not shed their civil rights at the "school house gate." Wearing armbands would not disrupt the school environment.
  • New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985)—T.L.O., a juvenile, was caught smoking in a bathroom at school. When taken to the principal's office for questioning, she denied that she had been smoking. She even went so far as to say that she did not smoke at all. A vice-principal searched her purse. He found cigarettes, rolling papers, marijuana, a large bundle of bills, and two letters indicating that she dealt in drugs at school. When taken to court, she was found delinquent. She argued that the evidence could not be used because it was an illegal search. The Court ruled that school officials do not need "probable cause" but only "reasonable suspicion" to conduct a search.
  • Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988)—Kathy Kuhlmeier and two other students wrote articles on pregnancy and divorce for their school newspaper. The high school principal objected to the articles because he felt that the students described in the articles on pregnancy, although not named, could be identified, and believed it was unjust that the father discussed in the article on divorce was not allowed to respond to the derogatory article. The principal also said that the language used was not appropriate for younger students. When the paper was printed, two pages containing the articles in question were deleted. The Court ruled that the school did not violate the First Amendment rights of the students and that schools have the power to censor activities such as school plays, yearbooks, and school newspapers as long as the school finances the activities and there are grounds for censorship.

In my opinion, the cases just discussed are the most important cases pertaining to students' rights, but following is a list of other cases that may interest you and your students:

  • Board of Education v. Pieo—book banning
  • Boroff v. Van Wert City Board of Education—school dress code
  • Cruzan v. Missouri—right to die
  • Loving v. Virginia—interracial marriages
  • Texas v. Johnson—flag burning
  • Veronica School District v. Acton—drug testing
  • Wallace v. Jaffree—moment of silence
  • Wisconsin v. Mitchell—hate crimes
  • Wisconsin v. Yoder—mandatory school attendance


Like all topics, there are many different methods that can be used to teach specific Supreme Court cases. As students work through the cases, they will use and apply many levels of thinking skills—from simple to complex. I want to share with you several strategies that have worked for me. When I consider which strategy I will use, I try to include various learning styles and ability levels in order to keep all students interested. Many of these activities can be used with cooperative learning groups.

Case Study Cartoon Strip

(This is my favorite.)

This activity can be done in the media center or in a computer lab. Divide the class into groups of three or four and assign each group a case. The group is to do research on the case and use the information to create a comic strip that will look like this:

Name of Case ______________________________________________

Year of Case The Facts
(who, what, when, where, why, and how)
The Issue
(the question the Court is asked to answer)
Petitioner's Arguments
(petitioner—the person who challenges the law)
Respondent's Arguments
(respondent—the person(s) that want(s) to defend the law and keep it as it is)
Decision and Reasons

I give students a large sheet of white paper, colored pencils, and rulers. Once the comic strip is completed, it is then presented to the class. My students did a magnificent job with this and learned a lot about each case. Since the students did the research and taught it to themselves, they learned rather than just remembered it for the moment. Here's a few examples of my students' comic strips.

Case Study Outline

Give students a case and have them do research and complete the following outline:

  1. Name of case
  2. Facts
    1. What happened?
    2. Who was involved?
    3. Which facts are important? Unimportant?
    4. Is anything missing?
    5. Why did the parties act as they did?
  3. Issues
    1. Legal
    2. Public policy
    3. Ethics
    4. Practical matters
  4. Arguments
    1. Pro and con
    2. Most/least persuasive
    3. Consequences to parties and society as a whole
    4. Alternatives
    5. Decision
    6. Reasons for decision
  5. Analysis
    1. Do you agree/disagree? Why?

students working

Case Study Collage

Divide the class into three groups: one for facts, one for issues, and one for the decision. Provide each group with the necessary collage materials and a summary of each case, excluding the decision. Give each group a copy of the instructions below. After the whole class has had time to respond and react to the collages, pass out copies of the Supreme Court decision and evaluate the Court's reasoning and its implications. Compare the Court's decision with the one reached by the decision group.

Instructions for the Fact Group:

  1. Read the facts about the assigned case.
  2. Make a collage that will depict the facts of the case, so that anyone seeing the collage will know what this case is about. (Caution: Be sure that the collage tells only the facts and not your feelings about the facts.)

Instructions for the Issue Group:

  1. Read the information about the assigned case.
  2. If applicable, read the Amendments to the Constitution and decide which Amendment(s) and which right(s) are involved in this case.
  3. Make a collage that will depict the issue of this case, so that anyone seeing the collage will know what the constitutional question is. (Caution: Do not let the collage give away your own feelings about how you think the case should be decided.)

Instructions for the Decision Group:

  1. Read the information about the assigned case.
  2. If applicable, read the Amendment(s) to the Constitution and decide which Amendment(s) and which right(s) are involved in this case.
  3. Make a collage that shows how you would decide the case, so that anyone seeing the collage will understand two things: (1) what your decision is and (2) why you decided the way you did. (If your decision is not unanimous, reserve a section of your collage for dissenting opinions.)

Case Study Group Discussion

  1. Break the class into small groups, with five or six students in each group.
  2. Have each group select a judge and a secretary.
  3. Have the judges form a group at the front of the room.
  4. Present the facts of the case to the class as a whole.
  5. Allow ten minutes for each group to arrive at a decision, which will be written down by the secretary, giving the rationale.
  6. Each group states its decision and rationale as others listen.
  7. The judges then decide which solution they like best and give reasons for their preference.
  8. The decision of the majority of the judges decides the case.
  9. Compare the decision of the judges with the factual Supreme Court decision.

Role Play

Assign groups of students a specific case and instruct them to present a short skit using the facts of the case. Require that all students must be involved, at least two props should be used, and all facts of the case should be presented.


In addition to the several Web sites listed earlier, here are others that may assist you in your teaching about the Supreme Court.


U. S. Supreme Court Decisions, New York Bar Association, 1989.

Williams, Charles F. "The Supreme Court Trends," Social Education, October 2001.

Hall, Kermit L., ed. The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Irons, Peter H. A People's History of the Supreme Court. New York: Viking Press, 1999.

Terry, Michael J. Government in America: Supreme Court Decisions. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.

200 Years of the US Judiciary 1790–1990, Scholastic Inc., 1990.

Supreme Court of the United States Web Site