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Us History Supreme Court Essay Writing

The Supreme Court has a special role to play in the United States system of government. The Constitution gives it the power to check, if necessary, the actions of the President and Congress.

It can tell a President that his actions are not allowed by the Constitution. It can tell Congress that a law it passed violated the U.S. Constitution and is, therefore, no longer a law. It can also tell the government of a state that one of its laws breaks a rule in the Constitution.

The Supreme Court is the final judge in all cases involving laws of Congress, and the highest law of all — the Constitution.

The Supreme Court, however, is far from all-powerful. Its power is limited by the other two branches of government. The President nominates justices to the court. The Senate must vote its approval of the nominations. The whole Congress also has great power over the lower courts in the federal system. District and appeals courts are created by acts of Congress. These courts may be abolished if Congress wishes it.

The Supreme Court is like a referee on a football field. The Congress, the President, the state police, and other government officials are the players. Some can pass laws, and others can enforce laws. But all exercise power within certain boundaries. These boundaries are set by the Constitution. As the "referee" in the U.S. system of government, it is the Supreme Court's job to say when government officials step out-of-bounds.

How the Justices Make Decisions

The decisions of the Supreme Court are made inside a white marble courthouse in Washington, D.C. Here the nine justices receive approximately 7,000 to 8,000 requests for hearings each year. Of these the Court will agree to hear fewer than 100. If the Court decides not to hear the case, the ruling of the lower court stands.

Those cases which they agree to hear are given a date for argument.

On the morning of that day, the lawyers and spectators enter a large courtroom. When an officer of the Court bangs his gavel, the people in the courtroom stand. The nine justices walk through a red curtain and stand beside nine tall, black-leather chairs. The Chief Justices takes the middle and tallest chair. "Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!" shouts the marshal of the Court. (It's an old Court expression meaning hear ye .) "God save the United States and this Honorable Court."

The justices take their seats. The lawyers step forward and explain their case. The justices listen from their high seats and often interrupt to ask the lawyers questions. Several cases may be argued in one day. Finally, in the late afternoon, the Chief Justice bangs his or her gavel, rises, and leads the other justices through the red curtain out of the courtroom.

The justices may take several days to study a case. Then they meet around a large table in a locked and guarded room. From their table, they may occasionally look up to see a painting on the wall.

It is a portrait of a man dressed in an old-fashioned, high-collared coat. This man is John Marshall, one of the greatest Chief Justices in American history. More than anyone else, he helped the Supreme Court develop its power and importance.

Before Marshall became Chief Justice, the Supreme Court had not yet challenged an act of Congress. The Constitution did not clearly give the Court power to judge laws passed by Congress. Therefore, the Court wasn't even sure it had this power.

But Marshall made a daring move. In a famous court case in 1803, Marbury v. Madison, he wrote the Court's opinion, which declared a law passed by Congress to be unconstitutional.

This decision gave the Supreme Court its power of judicial review. Ever since, the highest court has used the power to review the nation's laws and judge whether they were allowed under the Constitution. It has also reviewed the actions of the President.

The Constitution does not allow Congress or state legislatures to pass laws that "abridge the freedom of speech." Freedom of speech is protected in the United States, and no lawmaking body may interfere with that freedom. Right? Usually. But there may be limits, even to free speech.

No freedom, even one specifically mentioned in the Constitution, is absolute. People convicted of serious crimes lose their right to vote. Some religions encourage a man to have several wives. But that practice is forbidden in the United States, even though the Constitution says that there shall be no laws that prohibit the "free exercise" of religion. Even words themselves may pose a "clear and present danger" to the well-being of the country.

When Are Mere Words So Dangerous That Congress (Or a State Legislature) May Limit the Freedom of Speech?

That is the sort of difficult question that the Supreme Court justices must often answer.

Here's an example. The justices sat around the conference table in their locked room, trying to decide what to do about a man from Chicago named Terminiello. The year was 1949.

It seems that Mr. Terminiello had given a speech to an audience in a hall in Chicago, attacking all sorts of people. A crowd had collected outside the hall to protest. Terminiello had called the crowd "a surging, howling mob." At other points in his speech, he called those who disagreed with him "slimy scum," "snakes," "bedbugs," and the like. The crowd outside screamed back: "Fascists! Hitlers!" Windows were broken, a few people were injured, and Terminiello was arrested. For what? All he did was talk. But by talking, he broke the law.

This Chicago law outlawed speech that "stirs the public to anger, invites dispute, (or) brings about a condition of unrest." But maybe this law was unconstitutional.

Justice William Douglas said that the Chicago law went against the First Amendment. He said that freedom of speech is important because it invites dispute. It allows people to raise tough questions, questions which should be answered in a democracy. Just because people get angry or annoyed at something that is said, Justice Douglas went on, does not mean that it should not be said.

Justice Robert Jackson felt differently. Yes, he agreed, Terminiello had not said anything illegal. But because of the crowd and the anger around him, his speech was dangerous to the peace and order of the community. Therefore it was not protected by the First Amendment. There is a point, said Justice Jackson, beyond which a person may not provoke a crowd.

Finally the Court voted. Each justice, including the Chief Justice, had one vote. Five agreed with one opinion, four with the other. One of the justices in the majority was then asked to write a long essay explaining the legal reasons for the majority's decision. Another justice announced that he would write a dissenting opinion. This was an essay telling why he disagreed with the Court's decision.

How do you think the Court ruled in Terminiello v. Chicago?

What if Terminiello had been a Republican campaigning for office among bad-tempered Democrats? What if he had been a Communist? Consider these and other important questions that might occur to you. Which is more important: protecting free speech, or the peace and order of the community? Where do you draw the line?

If you had been on the Court in 1949, would you have voted to allow the Chicago law to stand, or would you have voted to rule it unconstitutional?

To learn how the Court decided, visit the Oyez website.

To read the majority decision and dissenting opinions, visit Justia’s US Supreme Court Center website.


Adapted from The Presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court, Scholastic Inc., 1989.


The new New York state standards for U.S. History and Government include a section where the learner will have an understanding of the 32 most important Supreme Court decisions. While in the past we have covered many cases as they arose in historical context (Marbury v. Madison, 1803, etc.), I felt that with the number of cases that the state was holding the students responsible for, the we should also have an intense unit coverage. While presentations will probably take the better part of two to three days, the majority of the research and the writing of the paper, and production of the presentations, will take place at home; therefore, not taking substantial class time away from the historic narrative which must be covered.

Also, the importance and relevancy of supreme court decisions is demonstrated in the media everyday. For example, the current court will hear a case involving the rights of grandparents, and whether or not they have a constitutional right to see their grandchildren. They will also likely hear a case which began with a stalker, and ended in a dispute over federalism: where a state’s rights ends, and the federal government’s begins. While it is never easy to establish relevancy of material to high school juniors, I believe that a combination of listening, writing, assessing, and production, will introduce the critical data of the 32 most important cases from U.S. history, and allow students to see connections to our history, our society, and to themselves.

1. Use myriad research and writing skills and strategies to thoroughly investigate the important facts and issues of their case.
2. Demonstrate thorough knowledge of events leading to their case, and to the case itself.
3. Understand the court’s decision within historical\social context.
4. Describe the relationship between the court’s decision and: a. social/political reaction of the time; b. to other cases; c. and to themselves.
5. Produce an adequate lesson plan/demonstration/video, which will at once demonstrate thorough knowledge of the case, and pass on important information about the case to fellow students.

Objectives (Campbell, 2)
TLW (Bloom’s Taxonomy),
1. Identify the major facts of their case, including dates, themes, major people, major issues, etc., (knowledge).
2. Describe the critical information from the other court cases presented (knowledge).
3. Explain the social/historic importance of their case in both their paper and their production (comprehension).
4. Relates their court cases to others presented and/or to other situations (application).
5. Analyze events leading up to their case decision, and be able to point out important issues or turning points - - were the events primarily social, political, balance of power, etc.,(analysis).
6. Summarize important case findings and events in a three page paper (synthesis).
7. Research their case, using their text, handouts, Internet, school and/or public library, and other sources, and be able to adequately cite their paper using a standard citation (APA, MLA, footnotes) format (synthesis).
8. Explain the importance of their case by creating a visual/oral presentation for the class (evaluation).
9. Identify important information from other cases by listening, reading handouts, taking Cornell notes, mnemonics, etc., (knowledge).
10. Illustrate understanding of important cases by taking a final supreme court exam, including selected response and essay questions (analysis).
11. Examine previous years NYS regent’s exams, and work on successfully answering selected essay questions which have dealt with issues regarding supreme court decisions (synthesis).

Instructional Overview (Campbell, 3)
The Supreme Court unit will be assigned (see attached) to eleventh grade U.S. History and Government students (homogeneous Regent’s grouping) during the first week of November, and will be completed approximately six weeks later, with virtually all of the work (research, writing, creating, filming, etc.), done outside of school hours (I may build in some library time, if possible). Given the amount of content which must be covered for the Regent’s exam, this is the only way that I can see to cover 32 cases effectively, and still cover the one chapter per week of regular content, plus it should allow some measure of creativity, and help to introduce or refine research paper writing.

The unit will have three major components:
1. A three page research paper;
2. A visual/oral presentation; 3. A final written (regent’s type) test. The research paper will consist of the background of their case, the ruling on the case, and the impact of the case, on either society/culture and/or government. This may be the first research paper that some of them have written, so I will spend some class-time going over what it is that I want in the paper, including proper form, English, Works Cited page, and proper citations. These classes will include mini-citation workshops, with MLA/APA handouts, proper essay form lectures, and review and re-examine the necessity for using facts/evidence to help make an effective argument (essay). Also, I have researched several school library sources, Internet sources, community sources, and personal sources, in an effort to help those students who are having difficulty finding materials, but I will try to point them in the right direction, rather than simply give them the needed research material. Finally, in class I will review the various types of resources and ask that all papers include at least one primary and one secondary source.

Next, students are to prepare a three minute visual/oral presentation to the class. Presentations must include important factual information, including names, dates, places, issues, obstacles, outcomes, etc., and must include some form of visual aid(s). I will encourage students to be creative, including a film recreation of the case, a one-act play of the case, a puppet show of the case, and so on.

The final component of the unit will be a written assessment, a final, if you will, where students will demonstrate a broad base of case knowledge and synthesis. There are two instructional reasons for this final: 1. students will tend to stay focused during students presentations because they must have this information for their exam; 2. since the Regent’s board has put these 32 cases on their outline for the course, students will see questions about them on their test in June, so it is important that they practice answering questions about specific cases now. Prior to the presentation phase, I will review with students, Cornell note format, the "magic" of mnemonics, and simply making personal connections with the cases, as techniques for retaining the material.

I will, from time to time, touch on a particular case, or review one which we already covered, but for the most part, I will simply add or correct information about specific cases, as presented by the students. We will be covering six chapters of narrative material while this project is going on; so, to repeat, most of the work for this unit will take place outside of the class room. Normal reinforcement procedures, for which I have become (in)famous (candy for correct answers, candy for incorrect answers - i.e., good guesses, game shows, read alouds, etc.), will take place mostly in the review phase of the project. I do believe that this information is important, pertinent, and relevant to students, and warrants the additional work. I will, however, attempt to make homework assignments minimal for narrative material during the six weeks time, in order for the student to have more time to work on his/her project.

Assessment Overview (Campbell, 4)

The narrow focus of the Supreme Court Unit allows me to focus formal assessment as well. The formal assessment will reflect all levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, relative to content, and form (language/writing), while other portions will allow for many of Gardner’s learning styles to surface and excel, including intra-interpersonal skills. Informally, I am always available to my students for additional questions or help. Those students whom I have already identified as having trouble (for myriad reasons) with this type of project, will be under constant informal scrutiny for assurances that they understand and are on target. This can be as simple as "hey, how’s it going?", or as complex as listening in on group work as they wrestle with the correct citation for a secondary source.

The formal unit assessment will be broken into three segments: the paper; the presentation; the exam. Students need to understand the importance of the information that is being presented relative to the NY Regent’s Exam, and that simply doing a good job on their part of the project (at the expense of ignoring the other cases) is not likely to secure a passing mark (65%). Both the paper and the presentation will have a separate formal rubric, based on a 0-5 scale, with each point representing 20% of the grade for that segment.

The paper assessment will focus on depth of content, understanding (or what I call, connections) correct use of essay form, language syntax and grammar, appearance according to guideline, citations, Works Cited page and correctness of sources, and logical argument/evidence and conclusions. The hope here is that students will use logical structure to present their cases, and thereby reinforce the logical structure needed for a Regent’s exam essay.

The presentation of their cases must include clear logical conclusions in a way which reflects understanding of the case and communicates that understanding to their fellow students. This should not simply be a venue for dressing up and acting out in front of the family’s camcorder, rather it should be a sincere attempt to creatively display important material. Students have any number of choices for their presentations (videos, one-act plays, overheads, computer generated presentations, posters with graphs, etc.), and they are told that they should get approval from me for presentations which are out of the ordinary (bringing a live lion in, or something like that). I chose to be somewhat less specific on the type of presentation in part to avoid the "I don’t have it" syndrome. For example, if I was to assign a movie recreation, and someone doesn’t have a camcorder, I would have to find a way to supply one. Letting students chose their "voice" should also allow them to involve themselves in the material, and foster creativity.

Finally, the final exam will be a variety of selected response questions, with much focus on the Regent’s type essay questions. The exam will focus entirely on the cases covered by myself or presentations, and the connections with American history. The exam will be timed to take one class period, allowing a full 20 minutes for the essay portion. It is likely that I will used that attached exam, as is, assuming that we cover everycase mentioned in the exam, in the time allotted. This test should allow various testing strengths to surface, and adequately test content knowledge and synthesis.

I am confident that a student who does well on this project will succeed on any Regent’s exam questions related to Supreme Court cases, and carry a citizen’s understanding of our third branch of government.

Table of Specifications (Campbell, 5)

CategoryKnowReason ShowTotal
Social Impact4sr3sr, 1e 7sr, 1e

Balance of power

3sr2sr, 1e1pa5sr, 1e
History2sr2sr1pr4sr, 1pa
Connections2sr2sr 4sr. 1pr
Total11 sr9sr, 2e1pa, 1pr20sr, 2e, 1pa, 1pr


Multiple Choice
1. The supreme court, in the case Marbury v. Madison, avoided a potential crisis between the branches of government, and also established its right to do this:
a. meet in secret.
b. increase the number of justices and lower federal courts.
c. declare a law unconstitutional.
d. question the day to day duties of the executive branch.

2. The supreme court showed its willingness and ability to make social policy in a case involving a young african-american girl’s right to attend a non-segregated school. Was it
a. Baker v. Carr
b. Gibbons v. Ogden
c. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, et. al, v. Casey
d. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas

3. The ability of the supreme court to determine the meaning of the constitution was exemplified in a case involving possible spy activity during WWI, and whether or not all free speech was protected. Was it
a. Northern Securities Co. v. U.S.
b. Schenck v. U.S.
c. Plessy v. Ferguson
d. Engle v. Vitale

4. New York Times v. U.S. dealt with the right to do what?
a. New York state’s right to bar the Times from printing pornography.
b. The Times right to publish sensitive government documents.
c. The Federal governments absolute right of censorship.
d. The right of New York Times executives to say anything they wanted about President Nixon and the so-called plumbers.

5. You have been accused of a crime, and you need to cite the case where the police officer is supposed to tell you your rights. Which case do you cite?
a. Marbury v. Madison
b. Schecter Poultry v. U.S.
c. Roe V. Wade
d. none of these

(Campbell, 6)

True and False

1. Korematsu v. U.S. took place during WWII, and was about the legality of Vietnam internment camps in the United States.

T__ F__

2. Dred Scott v. Sanford and the 1883 Civil Rights Cases, were about the rights of slaves or former slaves.

T__ F__

3. Supreme court Chief Justice, John Marshall, in McCulloch v. Maryland asserted federal dominance in matters of currency and banking by ruling that Maryland could not tax a branch of the Bank of the U.S.

T__ F__

4. Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S. prohibited states from making laws which prohibited a woman from seeking medical attention, including abortion.

T__ F__

Fill in the blank

1. In Gideon v. Wainwright, 1963, the supreme court established the responsibility of the state to provide a(n) ____________________ for a defendant who could not afford one.

2. The 1896 supreme court decision which upheld the idea of "separate but equal" for African Americans was ______________v. F________________.

3. Louis D. Brandeis, argued in 1908, in the case of Muller v. Oregon, that Oregon had an obligation to protect workers from harmful working conditions, even though that protection might violate the d_____ p_____________ clause of the fourteenth amendment.

4. The case of Gibbons v. Ogden, 1824, established federal congressional supremacy in matters of "commerce," and redefined commerce as almost any type of business. The specific type of business in question was a steamboat run, founded by its inventor, R______ _________.
Campbell, 7)

Matching LIST I - Place the number of the decision in front of the correct case.

__Northern Securities Company Et Al. v. U.S.

__Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S.

__Nixon v. U.S.

__In Re Debs

__Dartmouth College v. Woodward

1. control of trusts and monopolies

2. ability of the Federal government to declare a state law invalid, if it conflicts with federal law (corporate protection, in this case)

3. Congress has the right to regulate interstate commerce, including the right to promote racial equality

4. Judicial process applies to everyone, including the executive branch of government.

Matching LIST 2 - Place the number of the decision in front of the correct case.

__New Jersey v. TLO

__Planned Parenthood v. Casey

__Tinker v. DesMoines

__Veronia School District v. Acton

__Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Dept. of Health

1. The fourth amendment does not prohibit reasonable drug testing of high school students.

2. No one has the right, without clear and convincing evidence, to request the discontinuation of life sustaining treatment, except the person receiving the treatment.

3. This case held that while states can’t deny a woman’s right to an early-term abortion, they can impose certain restrictions (notifying a parent, waiting 24 hours, etc.), as long as those restrictions do not present an undue burden to the woman.

4. The court modified its usual strict interpretation of "probable cause" for searches, and imposed the less strict standard of "reasonableness" when school officials search school students.

(Campbell, 8)

Essays - Choose ONE of the following questions and answer completely, using specific evidence.

1. The supreme court has shown its willingness to make and/or interpret social policy, by looking to the constitution for guidance. CHOOSE ANY TWO (2) OF THE FOLLOWING



a. choose a supreme court case which ruled on that issue

b. discuss the background of the case

c. discuss the decision

d. discuss the social impact of the decision


a. write a one paragraph comparison of the relative impact of both cases chosen.

2. The supreme court has interpreted the constitution’s intent regarding the balance of power (Federal, state, individual, etc.), from the birth of the republic. CHOOSE ANY TWO (3) OF THE FOLLOWING



a. give a brief background of the case

b. describe the constitutional issue being decided

c. discuss the decision and its implications for balance of power

THEN,Assessment Rubric for Presentation (Campbell, 9)

4 of 53 of 52 of 51 of 50 of 5 - Made no attempt

Explanation of Scale (Campbell, 10)

Because broad content knowledge is so important to this unit, the final exam will be worth 40% of the total unit grade, with the paper comprising 30%, and the presentation comprising another 30%. My students understand that in any given semester, there are approximately 25 to 30 grading units in my class (a homework assignment is normally one unit, while a chapter quiz may be two), and that the Supreme Court unit will be 5 grading units - - quite substantial.

The presentation rubric allows for a great deal of creativity, with the only major constraints being time, accurate content, and some type of visual medium. The paper is a fairly straight research paper, and is meant to prepare them better for research papers to come, evidentiary writing in general, and perhaps college.

While the paper and the presentation will have rubric(s), the final exam will be based on 20 SR questions (they can leave one blank, since there are 21) at 3 points each. and one essay worth 40 points. This closely approximates the regent’s scoring guide and reaffirms the importance of not only content but of synthesis (essay). But there is one factor that separates the final from others: it will be open note.

Due to the number of cases that the students will be hearing in a relatively short amount of time, the amount of information from each case, and the fact that I want them paying close attention to their fellow students, I have decided to allow them to take copious notes (I will monitor all presentations for correctness of content) and then use those notes on the test. I have done this in the past, and while the quality of work generally goes up, the bell curve remains intact (a doctoral thesis someday). All in all, the scale is fair, and I believe valid and reliable.

Plan Integrity

My objectives are quite clear, and center around personal and academic growth, creativity, and preparation for the NYS Regent’s Exam in June. If I look simply at the formal assessments for this project, and apply my objectives to them as a template, all of the objectives are met.


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