Cases, Controversy, and the Court: Teaching about the Supreme Court

By Hess, Diana; Arbetman, Lee | Social Education, January-February 2002 | Go to article overview

Cases, Controversy, and the Court: Teaching about the Supreme Court


Hess, Diana, Arbetman, Lee, Social Education


Alexis de Tocqueville presaged the importance of courts when he wrote that "there is hardly a political question in the United States which does not sooner or later turn into a judicial one." But even this famous French visitor did not predicts that the most political of all questions--who should be elected President--would be determined in the judicial realm.

The controversy over the Supreme Court's involvement in last year's presidential election has sparked renewed interest in the Court. Some questions raised by the public were quite basic. What does the Supreme Court do? Who are the nine justices and what influences their decision making? How do the justices decide whether to hear a case? Once review is granted what process is used to make decisions about a case? Other questions about the Court illustrated the heated controversy that Bush v. Gore provoked among the general and the community of legal and political scholars. Was the Court right to involve itself in the election cases? Did the Court make the correct decision?

Because the controversy over the election case was so intense and so recent; it is easy overlook that fact that, just as Alexis de Tocqueville predicted, virtually all of the public issues confronting us are dealt with in both the political and judicial realms. From abortion to vouchers, the courts have an undeniable (although not uncontroversial) influence on the lives of most people in the United States. Ironically, the Court with the fewest number of cases holds the greatest influence: the Supreme Court. For that reason alone, it is important that the general public understand the Supreme Court--its jurisdiction, how it functions, and its decisions of particular importance.

In this special issue of Social Education, we seek to help teachers broaden and deepen their understanding of the United States Supreme Court and how to teach their students about the Court. The articles are written by legal and political scholars, reporters, and educators with specific expertise in teaching young people about the Supreme Court. …

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