Adult Ed

Supreme Court

Overview | Activities

Introductory Activities
  1. Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances among the Three Branches of Government.

    Have students examine the three branches of government and the Supreme Court's role within the checks and balances system. Go to the "Newshour with Jim Lehrer" Extra Web site at lessonplans/socialstudies/scotus_powers.pdf and conduct the activity on "Declare Your Powers."

    This lesson was developed for high school students and can be easily modified to meet different student requirements if necessary. The main goal of the lesson is to help students understand the construction of the separation of powers and how the checks on power help keep a balance between the branches of government.

  2. How is the Supreme Court relevant?

    • Divide students into small groups of three or four.

    • Distribute the handout, "Ranking the Importance of Supreme Court Cases" to all students.

    • Review the directions with them, having them read the case descriptions and discuss their importance.

    • Then have them rank each case's importance according to a consensus of the group.

    • After each group has completed the rankings, hold a discussion on the reasons for the students' rankings.

Learning Activities

Landmark Supreme Court Decisions Information Poster Activity

This activity has students working in research groups to find information on an important Supreme Court case and develop an information poster to share with the class.

  1. Divide students into groups of four to cover as many of the cases on the handout as the numbers allow.

  2. Distribute the student handout, "Landmark Supreme Court Decisions Information Poster Activity." Review the directions with students.

  3. Have students do their research from textbooks, the library, and the Internet (including THE SUPREME COURT Web site's interactive game, Supreme Court Landmark Case Timeline ( supremecourt/educators/sc_timeline.html). Work with each group to make sure they are thoroughly covering the questions in the research guide.

  4. When the posters are completed, have the student groups present their information posters to the class. Use the debriefing questions below (and on the students handout) when all cases have been presented.

Debriefing Questions:

  1. Which cases involved Constitutional questions surrounding the Bill of Rights or the power of one of the branches of government?

  2. Which cases involved judicial review?

  3. Which cases involved the executive branch? The legislative branch?

  4. Did you agree with the Court's decision in the case you presented? Why or why not?

  5. Did you strongly agree or disagree with any of the other Court decisions presented? Explain why.

The Supreme Court Defines Limits on Rights

This activity has students review past Supreme Court cases that placed limits on the people's rights.

  1. Divide the class into groups of five. Regardless of the total number of students in the class, each group should have an odd number of students (3, 5 or 7)

  2. Distribute the student handout "Defining Limits on People's Rights" and review the directions with the class.

  3. Assign one of the Supreme Court cases listed on the handout to each group.

  4. Students are to research the case from the suggested Web site or other Web sites. Teachers can allow students time to research on the Internet or in a law library or provide copies of the case summaries to students.

  5. After researching the case, have students meet in their groups to discuss the Court's decision following the discussion questions on the handout.

  6. Then have the groups write up a summary statement of their decision following the guide on the handout and present their findings to the class.

  7. Debrief the class with the following questions (also found on the handout):

    1. What rights of the people do you feel were limited in the Court's decision?

    2. Why do you feel the Court believed it was necessary to limit these rights?

    3. Did you feel the Supreme Court made the correct decision on your case?

    4. How, if at all, did members of your group agree and/or disagree with the Court's decision?

Culminating Activities

  1. Have students select one or more of the Supreme Court cases featured in either of the Learning Activities. Have them work independently or in small groups to develop a "position paper" addressing the following questions:

    • Why do you think the Supreme Court made the ruling(s) it did?

    • What did the Supreme Court say was the role or responsibility of the government to protect citizens' rights?

    • What role do citizens have in acting responsibly with these rights?

  2. Have students play the online interactive game Supreme Court Concentration on THE SUPREME COURT Web site ( Before they play the game, tell them to choose a justice they would like to learn more about. The justices are John Marshall, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hugo Black, Earl Warren, Sandra Day O'Connor, and William Rehnquist. After the game, ask them to research any specific time in the justice's life and develop a presentation on it. They should also comment on how that period had an influence on their tenure on the Supreme Court.

Cross-Curricular Extensions

  • Write a letter to the editor expressing your views on a recent Supreme Court decision or what type of justice should be the next appointment to the Court.

  • Research the biographies of any of the chief justices who had an impact on the Supreme Court. Document the major case or cases that reflected their judicial philosophy and the legacy they left for the Court.

Community Connections

Visit your local court house and take a tour of the building. Ask questions about the history of the building and the cases that are heard there. Sit in on a case and observe the different roles of the lawyers, witnesses, judge, and court officials. Write a reflection piece about your experience.