Teaching About the U.S. Supreme Court

April 25, 2001 3 min read

Here are four resources educators can use in teaching about the Supreme Court, particularly its cases concerning student and youth rights.

  • We the Students: Supreme Court Cases For and About Students, by Jamin B. Raskin (CQ Press, 2000)

This is the 263-page textbook used by law students in the Marshall- Brennan Fellows program to teach high school students about the Supreme Court and student rights. The book includes background information and major excerpts from the court’s opinions for such cases as Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), about the editorial freedom of student newspapers; Lee v. Weisman (1992), about graduation prayers; and New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985), about administrators’ searches of students and their property.

Mr. Raskin’s sympathies tend to fall more with students than with school officials, but the book presents a balanced approach to each issue.

  • May It Please the Court: Courts, Kids, and the Constitution, Peter Irons, editor (The New Press, 2000)

This is the fourth in a series of book-and-tape sets featuring oral arguments in historic Supreme Court cases, and the first to focus on education cases. It starts with the 1963 case of Abington School District v. Schempp, about school prayer, and ends with Vernonia School District v. Acton, the 1995 case about drug testing of student athletes.

Mr. Irons drew the wrath of the justices in 1993 when he published the first set of tapes he had dubbed from the National Archives on the premise of using them for research. The court has made audio recordings of the courtroom arguments in its cases since 1955, but the justices apparently did not want them widely disseminated. After briefly threatening legal action, the court backed down and eventually allowed others to copy the tapes as well.

One continuing flaw of Mr. Irons’ tape sets is that the identity of justices asking questions is sometimes wrong. The court doesn’t help in this regard, since it doesn’t identify individual justices in its transcripts. Another weakness is that each argument is boiled down to less than half the original.

Another product provides complete oral arguments in 50 historic cases. “The Supreme Court’s Greatest Hits” is a cd-rom from Northwestern University Press.

  • After City of Chicago v. Jesus Morales: A Resource Guide for Teachers, by the American Bar Association (2000)

This 43-page booklet is one of several resources on law-related education available from the aba’s Public Education Division. It examines a 1999 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a Chicago ordinance against public congregation by gang members. The majority ruled that the ordinance was unconstitutionally vague. The aba booklet offers background about the case and its aftermath, and suggests activities for teaching about civil liberties and the courts.

The bar association knows a teachable moment when it sees one: It once produced a teachers’ guide to the O.J. Simpson trial.

    The Supreme Court, by William H. Rehnquist (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001)

    The new edition of a book the chief justice first published in 1987 provides a concise, well-written history of the court from Marbury v. Madison (1803) through the era of former Chief Justice Earl Warren. As he describes in the preface, Chief Justice Rehnquist set out to write something for the lay audience that falls between a civics textbook and a comprehensive scholarly tome. Most illuminating are his perspectives on oral arguments and the case-decisionmaking process in the modern Supreme Court. Best of all is his critical categorization of the types of lawyers who argue before the court, such as the “lector,” who views questions from the bench as unwelcome interruptions; and the “spellbinder,” who likes the sound of his own voice.

    Readers will search in vain for any discussion of the chief justice’s historic role in President Clinton’s impeachment trial or the court’s conclusive decision in the 2000 presidential election.

    —Mark Walsh

    A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2001 edition of Education Week as Teaching About the U.S. Supreme Court


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