Teachers Get Up-Close Insight Into High Court Workings
In late June each year, the U.S. Supreme Court dominates the headlines, if only for a few days. That’s when the justices issue many of their most significant—and contentious—opinions.
For a group of high school teachers who consider themselves enthusiasts of the law and of the Supreme Court, there’s no better time to be in the nation’s capital. In succeeding weeks late in June, two groups of about 30 teachers each arrive for the Supreme Court Summer Institute for Teachers, a nearly 20-year-old program aimed at giving them a deeper insight into the workings of the high court.
“I’m in heaven right now being with peers who are as geeky about the Supreme Court as I am,” said Lori Peters-Merkel, who teaches Advanced Placement government, psychology, and sociology at East Valley High School in Spokane, Wash. Her fellow teachers at home don’t always share that deep interest. When they see her get going on a court topic, she said, “they tend to bob their heads and say, ‘Really, Lori?’”
Over five days for each session, the teachers in the summer institute study cases from the current Supreme Court term, engage in a moot court that simulates the oral arguments in a real case, and hear from lawyers who argue before the court or have served as law clerks to the justices. Most of these sessions take place in a classroom at Georgetown University Law Center, just a few blocks from the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill.
At other times, the teachers tour the Supreme Court building, meet court employees such as the clerk who handles last-minute death penalty appeals, and attend a reception hosted by a member of the court. This year, Justice Stephen G. Breyer was host for the first group, while Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. welcomed the second.
The highlight is attendance at a session of the court when opinions are announced. (Oral arguments are not part of the schedule, since they end in April.)
On June 23, the first group of teachers heard the court deliver three opinions—two in relatively minor cases and an opinion in a major environmental case, Utility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency, delivered in typically dramatic style by Justice Antonin Scalia.
For the second group, it was unclear whether the court term would extend until June 30, when that group was scheduled to have its opinions day. (The court doesn't have a predetermined end point to its term, and for a while it looked as though the justices might wrap up their work earlier.)
As it turned out, the second group got to witness two major decisions that closed out the term—the ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., finding a religious exemption for closely held companies from the contraceptive requirements of the Affordable Care Act; and Harris v. Quinn, which dealt a setback to public-employee unions over agency fees for dissenting workers.
Maria Pasqualo, who teaches AP economics and U.S. history at Bishop McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead, N.Y., said afterward that sitting in the court was an “enormously compelling experience” as a teacher, a student of the court, and “an active citizen.”
She noted the rare circumstance in which the teachers knew which decisions were coming because it was the last day of the term, and she studied the background of the Hobby Lobby and Harris cases the night before.
“Justice Alito’s calm and explanatory demeanor was incredibly comprehensive and easy to follow” in the Hobby Lobby opinion, Ms. Pasqualo said. “I was really off my chair while Justice [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg was making her dissent [in Hobby Lobby], as it was uncharacteristic and unexpected.”
“I was also very interested in the body language of the justices, and how they interacted with each other,” she said. “I can’t wait to take this experience back to my students.”
The program was launched in 1995, and is run by the Supreme Court Historical Society, which covers most of the cost, and Street Law, a Silver Spring, Md.-based educational organization that also sponsors other civics-themed training sessions and publishes curricular materials about law and the high court.
“The purpose of the program is to strengthen and expand instruction about the Supreme Court in high school social studies classrooms,” said Lee Arbetman, the executive director of Street Law. He noted that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. helped design the program when he was a lawyer in private practice and arguing regularly before the justices. Mr. Roberts gave the opening lecture for the first 10 years of the program, until he joined the high court in 2005, and he now welcomes participants in a recorded video message.
Street Law examined social studies textbooks at the outset of the program and found that “treatment of Supreme Court cases was not very interesting and not very deep,” Mr. Arbetman said.
Street Law put together a program that takes content that teachers are required to deliver under most states’ standards and pairs it with interactive, student-centered methods, Mr. Arbetman added. For example, to learn about a case about whether the police may search the cellphones of those they arrest without obtaining a warrant, the program invited Jeffrey T. Green, a Washington lawyer who argues before the court, to discuss some of the fine points of Fourth Amendment police searches.
“Has anyone ever seen a warrant?” Mr. Green asked the first group of teachers, who studied and debated the case of Riley v. California just days before the Supreme Court decided it. Mr. Green had filed a friend-of-the-court brief for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers on the side of a suspect whose phone was searched by police without a warrant after a traffic stop. The search turned up evidence linking the suspect to several gang crimes.
After the lesson, the teachers split into small groups to debate the case. Kristen Luna, who teachers U.S. government and introduction to law at West Ottawa High School in Holland, Mich., made a comparison to Facebook. “You’re not ‘friending’ the government to look at all your photos on your phone,” she told her group.
Ben Concannon Smith, who teaches U.S. history and criminal justice at Wachusett Regional High School in Holden, Mass., said that in talking about such criminal cases with his students, it can be hard to get them to focus on the constitutional rights of the accused. “They’ll say, ‘this guy is clearly a criminal,’” Mr. Smith said.
Shelly Davis, a civics and AP Government teacher at Port Huron (Mich.) High School, said that by carrying one’s phone around with lots of personal data on it, “it’s out there. The expectation of privacy is being chipped away.”
The five or six discussion groups reached different conclusions about whether the police should have to get a warrant to search the phones of suspects. And no group went as far as the Supreme Court itself did a few days later.
Writing for a unanimous court in Riley, Chief Justice Roberts said that because of the large volume of personal data a phone is capable of holding, the police must get a warrant before searching the phone of an arrestee. The decision was widely greeted as extending the protections of the Fourth Amendment to the digital age.
Another key activity for both groups of teachers was the moot court. The teachers spent several hours studying the arguments around the case of Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway, about whether a municipality could open its meetings with a prayer led by a local member of the clergy.
The Supreme Court had issued its decision in early May, ruling 5-4 to uphold the town’s practice even though most of the prayers had been delivered by Christian ministers. Still, both groups of teachers had robust arguments about the case. They were aided in their preparation by lawyers who regularly argue before the court, including Thomas G. Hungar, who had argued the actual case for the town back in November. The teachers’ exercise was held in Georgetown Law Center’s moot courtroom, which is decorated as a miniature version of the Supreme Court itself. Some teachers served as the nine justices, while others delivered arguments, and a few just observed. Aside from the fact that some of the teachers wore shorts, flip-flops, and other summer wear, the session was a good approximation (if abbreviated) of what typically goes on a few blocks away.
“I have a question for you, if I may,” Emily Quinlan, a teacher of business law at Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo, Calif., aggressively asked the town’s “lawyer” in her role as a justice in the second group. “Why do you have to have a prayer at all?”
Another teacher “justice,” in the first group, asked, “If I’m an atheist, how often could I come before the town council” to deliver a “nonprayer”?
“Does the Constitution protect your feelings?” asked another teacher-justice, of a teacher-lawyer representing the challengers to the practice. (The justices in the two groups splintered, with one group narrowly voting to uphold the town’s practice, and the other voting to strike it down.)
After each moot court, Mr. Arbetman and Megan Hanson, a senior program director at Street Law, discussed with the teachers how they could adapt such an exercise back home. There were suggestions to engage local lawyers and even judges, and make them part of interactive exercises with students rather than vaguely inviting them to come deliver a lecture. The program instructors and the teachers also discussed such issues as how to engage a large class in a moot court or mock trial, and how to go about grading each student’s performance.
Making it Relevant
While the Supreme Court has been at the center of some huge issues in recent years—the constitutionality of President Barack Obama’s signature health-care law, same-sex marriage, and campaign finance, among them—the teachers say that such high-profile cases don’t necessarily register with their students.
Mr. Smith, the Massachusetts teacher, said he tends to use landmark cases such as Marbury v. Madison (the 1803 decision which established judicial review) and Dred Scott v. Sandford (the 1857 decision holding that a slave was not a citizen with constitutional rights) with his classes.
“From an objective standpoint, the Supreme Court is not necessarily an attractive conversation starter for most high school students,” he said. “But you can make it attractive.”
Kyle Hardy, a second-year teacher of world history, law and justice, and other social studies subjects at Dunseith (N.D.) High School, said many of his students are American Indians who are more inclined to learn about their tribal court systems than federal constitutional issues.
“Since we’re so far from D.C., you can’t just talk about what’s going on with the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said. “After this, though, I’ll be able to make it more relevant to the lives of my students.”
Get more stories and free e-newsletters!