ERIC Identifier: ED456088
Publication Date: 2001-08-00
Author: Drake, Sarah E. - Vontz, Thomas S.
Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
Teaching about the United States Supreme Court. ERIC Digest.
The Supreme Court is one of the most important institutions in the United
States. Thus, social studies teachers should emphasize the significance of the
Court in our nation's history. This ERIC Digest highlights the origin and
foundations of the Supreme Court, discusses the changing role of the Supreme
Court in the United States, and recommends World Wide Web resources helpful in
teaching and learning about the Supreme Court.
CONSTITUTIONAL AND STATUTORY FOUNDATIONS OF THE SUPREME
The majority of the men who met in Philadelphia during the summer of
1787 agreed on the need to create a more powerful central government.
Concurrently, however, many of the delegates feared the abusive power a new
national government could wield. During the ratification struggle, James
Madison, in "Federalist 51," emphasized the necessity of providing for
"auxiliary precautions" to limit governmental power. The judicial branch was
designed in part to exercise such precautions on the legislative and executive
branches. At the same time, the framers placed checks on the judiciary in order
to ensure that no single branch would dominate the others.
The judiciary was the least discussed branch of government at the
Constitutional Convention, and Alexander Hamilton in "Federalist 78" later
referred to the Supreme Court as the "least dangerous" branch of the proposed
national government because it possessed neither the power of "the purse"
(legislative power) nor that of "the sword" (executive power). The debates
surrounding the Court's creation reveal a broad consensus that the federal
judiciary shall have jurisdiction in all cases pertaining to the Constitution,
federal statutes, and treaties. The delegates provided for the Supreme Court to
have original jurisdiction only in cases involving "Ambassadors, other public
Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party." In all other
cases under its authority, the Court was granted "appellate jurisdiction"
(Article III, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution). In addition, the
convention delegates agreed that Congress would be empowered to establish
inferior courts (Casto 1995, 14).
The Philadelphia delegates granted the President power to make judicial
appointments and required the Senate's approval for such appointments. Supreme
Court justices were to be appointed for lifetime tenure "during good behavior"
to create an independent judiciary that would act to preserve a limited
government and the rule of law.
After ratification of the Constitution and subsequent implementation of the
new government, Congress passed the Judiciary Act of 1789 to establish and
organize the federal judiciary. This federal statute established two lower
levels of federal courts: 13 federal district courts at the lowest level and
three circuit courts at the next level to hear appeals from the district courts.
The Supreme Court was affirmed as the highest court of appeals in the federal
system. The Judiciary Act of 1789 also provided in its Section 25 that the
federal judiciary would have the power of judicial review over actions of state
governments. Thus, acts of state governments could be nullified if they violated
the United States Constitution or federal laws and treaties that conformed to
THE CHANGING ROLE OF THE SUPREME COURT IN THE UNITED
The U. S. Supreme Court met for its first session in February 1790.
During the first decade of the Court's existence, the justices had a light
caseload (Casto 1995, 54-55). Under John Marshall, who became Chief Justice in
1801, the Court enhanced its authority and increased the power of the federal
government at the expense of the states. The most famous case during Marshall's
tenure as Chief Justice, "Marbury v. Madison" (1803), provided an opportunity
for the Court to exercise judicial review about actions or laws of the federal
government. Judicial review, or the power of the federal courts to determine
whether acts of state governments or the national government are constitutional,
was first directed at the state level in "Ware v. Hylton" (1796); the Supreme
Court declared a Virginia statute void because it violated the 1783 treaty with
Great Britain. In 1803, the Marshall Court for the first time declared a federal
The scenario for "Marbury v. Madison" (1803) began during the final days of
President John Adams's administration, when he made several "midnight
appointments" to the federal judiciary to ensure that the Federalist party
agenda would not be totally overturned by the newly elected President, Thomas
Jefferson, and his Democratic-Republican party, which held a majority of seats
in the Congress. Adams appointed William Marbury, among others, to serve as a
justice of the peace in Washington, DC. Some of Adams's last-minute judicial
appointments, including that of Marbury, were never delivered. When Thomas
Jefferson assumed the presidency in March 1801, he ordered his Secretary of
State, James Madison, to ignore the commissions. Marbury subsequently took his
case directly to the Supreme Court and asked it to issue a writ of mandamus to
Madison. The writ of mandamus would order the Secretary of State to carry out
his duties by delivering Marbury's commission to him. Section 13 of the
Judiciary Act of 1789 gave the Court power to issue a writ of mandamus in cases
under its original jurisdiction.
Chief Justice John Marshall considered three questions in this case. Did
Marbury have a right to the commission? Did the law provide him a means to
obtain the commission? Could the Supreme Court, through its original
jurisdiction in Marbury's case, issue a writ of mandamus?
The Court ruled that Marbury was due his commission. The Chief Justice stated
that a writ of mandamus, which the Supreme Court was authorized to issue by
Section 13 of the Judiciary Act of 1789, was the proper legal procedure to
follow in this case. Marshall pointed out, however, that according to Article
III, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution, the Court could not have original
jurisdiction in the "Marbury" case. So the Chief Justice concluded that Section
13 of the Judiciary Act violated the Constitution and therefore was
Marbury did not receive his commission because the federal statute by which
he brought his case to the Supreme Court was nullified. Thus, a precedent was
established whereby the Court would have the power of judicial review over acts
of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government.
After the "Marbury v. Madison" decision, the Supreme Court did not declare
another act of Congress void until 1857, when in "Scott v. Sandford" it decided
the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to be unconstitutional. During the twentieth
century, however, the Court extensively and emphatically used its power of
judicial review through interpretation of the Constitution's 14th Amendment in
concert with particular parts of the Bill of Rights (Amendments 1-10) to protect
rights of individuals against tyranny by the federal and state governments.
In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville observed in his classic commentary "Democracy
in America" that the Supreme Court's power to declare particular actions of
legislative or executive officials unconstitutional was a powerful "barrier
against the tyranny of political assemblies." And so it has been from his time
to our own era. However, the Court's power to secure justice would be
meaningless without public understanding and support of its constitutional
responsibilities and purposes. The Court's "power is enormous," said
Tocqueville, "but it is the power of public opinion. [The justices] would be
impotent against popular neglect or contempt of the law."
To maintain the important balance of power among the three branches of
government and enable the Supreme Court to play its proper role in a
constitutional government, responsible citizens must be vigilant about the
enforcement of laws that protect their rights. Citizens must be cognizant of
what their rights are, how the Court has acted to protect them, and why they
must be engaged politically and civically to support the Constitution and its
WORLD WIDE WEB RESOURCES FOR TEACHING ABOUT THE SUPREME
The following Web sites are recommended to teachers and students.
Those sites are sources of information about landmark decisions of the U.S.
Supreme Court, which should be emphasized in the school curriculum.
Legal Information Institute:
Cornell's site contains all of the U. S. Supreme Court opinions since May
1990 and 600 opinions on major cases throughout the Court's history.
This site provides general information about the federal judiciary including
the history of federal courts and a biographical database of federal judges
since 1789. http://www.fjc.gov
of the Federal Judiciary:
This site presents information about the history of the federal courts, the
judges who have served since 1789, and landmark judicial legislation from the
Judiciary Act of 1789 to the present. http://air.fjc.gov/history/index_frm.html%20
This Supreme Court database from Northwestern University provides access to
U. S. Supreme Court cases with texts of opinions and recordings of oral
arguments in recent cases. It also contains biographical data on all Supreme
Court justices and links to their opinions. http://oyez.nwu.edu
Court of the United States:
This official site of the Court includes information about the history,
structure, functions, and rules of the federal judiciary, opinions on all cases
that have gone before the Court, oral arguments, the Court's docket, and a guide
to visiting the U.S. Supreme Court building.
REFERENCES AND ERIC RESOURCES.
The following list of
resources includes references used to prepare this Digest. The items followed by
an ED number are available in microfiche and/or paper copies from the ERIC
Document Reproduction Service (EDRS). For information about prices, contact
EDRS, 7420 Fullerton Road, Suite 110, Springfield, Virginia 22153-2852;
telephone numbers are (703) 440-1400 and (800) 443-3742. Entries followed by an
EJ number, annotated monthly in CURRENT INDEX TO JOURNAL IN EDUCATION (CIJE),
are not available through EDRS. However, they can be located in the journal
section of most larger libraries by using the bibliographic information
provided, requested through Interlibrary Loan, or ordered from commercial
Casto, William R. THE SUPREME COURT IN THE EARLY REPUBLIC: THE CHIEF
JUSTICESHIPS OF JOHN JAY AND OLIVER ELLSWORTH. Columbia, SC: University of South
Carolina Press, 1995.
Hess, Diana. "'California v. Greenwood' Moot Court Simulation." UPDATE ON
LAW-RELATED EDUCATION 13 (Fall 1989): 21-23. EJ 401 473.
Long, Gerald P. CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS OF JUVENILES AND STUDENTS: LESSONS ON
SIXTEEN SUPREME COURT CASES. Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social
Studies/Social Science Education, 1994. ED 374 070.
Marcus, Maeva, ed. ORIGINS OF THE FEDERAL JUDICIARY: ESSAYS ON THE JUDICIARY
ACT OF 1789. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Pacelle, Richard L., Jr. "Simulating Supreme Court Decision Making."
POLITICAL SCIENCE TEACHER 2 (Spring 1989): 8-10. EJ 392 908.
Patrick, John J. THE YOUNG OXFORD COMPANION TO THE SUPREME COURT OF THE
UNITED STATES. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. ED 368 670.