Teaching Supreme Court History, Structures, and Decisions

This collection of videos, presentations, and activities covers the history of the supreme court, as well as some of it’s most influential decisions, and asks students to think critically about the role of the Supreme Court in US democracy.

Introduction 

The decisions that the US Supreme Court has made throughout its history have profoundly impacted the lives and rights of all Americans. However, how the Court works, and the decisions that it makes are not well understood and the judiciary often gets less attention than the other two branches of government. Below is a collection of resources that will introduce students to the history and function of the Court, as well as some of its most influential decisions. There are also resources and activities that encourage students to think critically about the Supreme Court and consider potential reforms. 

Resources: 

  1. Animated videos
    1. How the Supreme Court Works: This video gives a quick intro to the main functions of the Supreme Court as well as how the Court decides to hear a case, concurring and dissenting opinions, and other key concepts related to the Supreme Court. 
    2. Judicial Review: This video dives into one of the Court’s most well-known powers: to declare an act of the legislative or executive branches unconstitutional. 
    3. Supreme Court Nominations: This video covers the nomination process, from being selected by the president, to hearings in the senate, to controversies surrounding the process. 
    4. US Supreme Court Cases Series: Here you’ll find an extensive collection of videos, each giving a full explanation of an important Supreme Court Case. This series includes many landmark cases as well as some lesser known decisions. 
  2. Presentations 
    1. The Supreme Court and the Bill of Rights: This slide deck gives a brief introduction to the Supreme Court, then discusses it’s relationship to the Bill of Rights. This is a great intro into discussing the Court’s power to interpret the Constitution and apply it to new situations throughout time. Attached to the end are slides with the full text of each amendment, if needed. 
    2. The Supreme Court and Gender: This slide deck covers the lack of representation of women on the Supreme Court throughout history, the lack of constitutional grounding for women’s rights, and explains the decisions in a few landmark decisions involving gender issues.  
  3. Activities 
    1. Accessibility to Guns Task Force: This activity asks students to imagine that they have just been elected to their state senate. During their campaign, they vowed to tackle the issue of gun violence and accessibility to weapons. They must now craft a law, but they must take into consideration past supreme court rulings about guns. They will be asked to explain why they think their law would both curb gun violence AND stand up to a Supreme Court challenge. 
    2. Historians 4SC: Historians 4 Social Change asks students to place themselves during a historical event and write an op-ed from the perspective of someone living at the time. Here, they can imagine that they are writing the day after a landmark case. They should conduct research, take a stance and defend it. You’ll find a few helpful resources compiled about Brown v Board of Education here, but this activity can be done with any case. Further instructions and assignment print-outs available here. Email completed student articles to [email protected] and we will publish them! 
    3. Alternatively, students can write from their own perspective by choosing a case that’s currently being considered by the Supreme Court and arguing which way they think it should be decided. They can also make and defend an argument on why they think a past decision should be overturned, or why they agree with a recent decision. Resources and assignment print outs are available here. If you email student articles to [email protected] we will publish them on students4sc.org.
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