Social Education 66(1), pg. 29
©2002 National Council for the Social Studies

Cases, Controversy, and the Court

Teaching about the Supreme Court


Diana Hess and Lee Arbetman

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 predict 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 public 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 to 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. Although the articles address a range of topics, they focus most intensively on core issues of contemporary relevance. For example, Erwin Chemerinsky’s explanation of the Rehnquist Court explains the key differences and similarities between its rulings and those of the Warren Court. Barbara Perry analyzes why and how the Court influences life in the United States, and Charles Bierbauer describes how the media covers this often mysterious and secretive institution. Recent scholarship about the Court is explored and critiqued in two book reviews by Erik Shager and Laurel Singleton.

Other articles deal directly with how to teach about the Court, its cases and controversies. Marshall Croddy proposes that teachers select which cases to teach on the basis of three different dimensions of controversy. Jennifer Brandsberg-Engelmann’s article highlights materials that can enhance students’ understanding of Brown v. Board of Education, and two teaching techniques (moot courts and case studies) are explained in some detail. Given how difficult it used to be to access information about contemporary Supreme Court cases, Charles Williams’ article on Internet resources shows how technology has the potential to improve teachers’ access to up-to-date resources about the Court and its cases.

Because the U.S. Supreme Court has a powerful influence on all of our lives, we think it is an important institution to understand and critique. Our goal is that this special issue will support teachers in their efforts to teach about the Court in ways that students will find engaging and illuminating.

We had excellent help putting together this issue. We thank Professor Simone Schweber of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who provided invaluable assistance editing many of the articles. Thanks also to Rachana Katkar, an intern at Street Law, Inc., and Anand Marri, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, for helping us construct this issue.