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How History Affects Supreme Court Decisions and Supreme Court Decisions Affect History: A Look at the Fourteenth Amendment
by Judy Zimmer, Street Law, Inc.

Intro   Learning Objectives   Standards   Media Components   Materials   Prep for Teachers

Why were the promises made by the post-Civil War amendments so important? Students will analyze and compare important Supreme Court decisions involving the Fourteenth Amendment and civil rights. Students will also study how the Court applied the Fourteenth Amendment to questions involving the liberty of contract and protections for working people. Through a series of interactive and reflective activities, students will trace the evolution of the Fourteenth Amendment from the late 1800s through the New Deal.

Grade Level: 9-12

Time Allotment: 135 minutes (three 45-minute classes, additional time may be necessary for further exlporation)

Subject Matter:
  • Civics/Government

  • United States History

  • Law

  • Economics (for the lesson on day three)

  • English/Language Arts


Students will be able to:

  • describe the Fourteenth Amendment and how it is associated with due process and equal protection

  • identify examples and analyze the importance of dissent in Supreme Court decisions involving the Fourteenth Amendment

  • describe important changes in the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment that reflected the changes happening in the United States in the second half of the 19th century

  • describe and analyze the impact of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Supreme Court on workers' rights in the beginning of the 20th century


National Standards for History in Schools
Available online at

Standard 2: Historical Comprehension
A. Identify the author or source of the historical document or narrative and assess its credibility.
B. Reconstruct the literal meaning of a historical passage.
C. Identify the central question(s) the historical narrative addresses.
D. Differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations.
E. Read historical narratives imaginatively.
F. Appreciate historical perspectives.
G. Draw upon data in historical maps.
H. Utilize visual, mathematical, and quantitative data.

History-Social Science Content Standards
Principles of American Democracy and Economics
Available online at:

12.2 Students evaluate and take and defend positions on the scope and limits of rights and obligations as democratic citizens, the relationships among them, and how they are secured.
1. Discuss the meaning and importance of each of the rights guaranteed under the Bill of Rights and how each is secured (e.g., freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, petition, privacy).
2. Explain how economic rights are secured and their importance to the individual and to society (e.g., the right to acquire, use, transfer, and dispose of property; right to choose one's work; right to join or not join labor unions; copyright and patent).
3. Discuss the individual's legal obligations to obey the law, serve as a juror, and pay taxes.
4. Understand the obligations of civic-mindedness, including voting, being informed on civic issues, volunteering and performing public service, and serving in the military or alternative service.
5. Describe the reciprocity between rights and obligations; that is, why enjoyment of one's rights entails respect for the rights of others.
6. Explain how one becomes a citizen of the United States, including the process of naturalization (e.g., literacy, language, and other requirements).

Standards for the English Language Arts Available online at

3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.

7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.

8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.



PBS series THE SUPREME COURT -- Episode 2, "A New Kind of Justice"

Segment #1: A New Kind of Justice
The U.S. Constitution and the role of the Fourteenth Amendment. (4:29)

Segment #2: The Civil Rights Cases
The rewriting of the nation's long-running racial drama that produced the Supreme Court's first great dissent. (6:43)

Segment #3: Workers' Rights
How did attitudes change regarding workers' rights during the Great Depression and the New Deal? (3:30)

Segment #4: Reflections on Dissent
Dissent has played an important role in the history of the Supreme Court. (7:11)


  • THE SUPREME COURT -- Episode 2, "A New Kind of Justice"

  • DVD player

  • LCD player/television

  • overhead or blackboard

  • flip-chart paper and markers

  • Handouts and Transparencies

    • Handout #1: U.S. Constitution: Fourteenth Amendment: Sections 1 and 5 -- Download

    • Handout #2: Announcing the Passage of the Fourteenth Amendment -- Download

    • Transparency #1: Civil Rights Act of 1875 (excerpt) -- Download

    • Handout # 3: The Civil Rights Cases (1883) -- Download

    • Handout # 4: Reflections on Dissent -- Download

    • Optional: Handout #5: President John F. Kennedy, Address to Nation on Civil Rights -- Download

    • Handout #6: The Fourteenth Amendment and Protections for Workers -- Download


  1. Collect and prepare the necessary materials, including student handouts. If possible, copy each of the handouts onto a different color of paper. This will help you and your students keep track of which handout they should be working with at a given time.

  2. Download the video segments used in the lesson, or cue the film to the first segment when you see the title page A New Kind of Justice and you hear the narrator say, "The carnage that Oliver Wendell Holmes had witnessed was only a small window on the enormity of the Civil War."

  3. This lesson would be improved if students had a basic understanding of the causes and outcomes of the Civil War, class conflicts during the industrial era, and attitudes about protecting workers in the depression era. This background knowledge is not required, but it is helpful.

  4. On the first day, students will be looking at the Constitution. Be sure to have enough copies of it for each student. (It can be found in the back of most textbooks.) Depending on the reading skills of your students, you may consider offering a version of the Constitution that includes the actual text next to passages that interpret that text in plain language. To find an excellent annotated version, go to and click on the link that reads "The Constitution."

  5. Decide if you want to do the optional extension activity to connect the civil rights cases of the 1880s to the 1960s. See Optional Handout #5: President John F. Kennedy, Address to the Nation on Civil Rights. If you decide to include this activity, you should also plan how to debrief this assignment with students on the following day or as part of an assessment of this lesson.

  6. On day three of this lesson plan, you will use a continuum teaching method. Prepare the room by hanging two signs at the opposite ends of a long wall in your classroom. The wall should be clear of desks and other obstacles so students will be able to move along the continuum to represent where they "stand" on a particular question. The signs should read "RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE" and "DO NOT RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE."

  7. Consider inviting a lawyer, historian, prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, or judge to help you teach this lesson.

Like most law-related education lessons, this lesson can be enhanced by inviting a resource person from the community to help you teach. Involving resource people is an element of "best practices" in law-related education. They can make the lessons more interesting and provide personal knowledge of the topic. Research also indicates that adult-student bonding [with resource people] is a key for helping some young people overcome risk factors.

To be most effective, community resource people should be well prepared and integrated into interactive class activities. They should not simply lecture. To that end, be sure to send a lesson plan to your resource people in advance and discuss how you will co-teach the lesson.