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The Supreme Court and Other Courts in American Government

Page history last edited by Robert W. Maloy 3 months, 1 week ago



Scale of Justice

Focus Questions


  • What are the functions of courts?


  • What are the principles of judicial review and an independent Judiciary?

For an overview, see the official US Courts.gov homepage:

Topics on the Page

The Principle of Judicial Review


The Supreme Court


United States Court of Appeals

United States District Courts

Bankruptcy Courts

Courts in Massachusetts

Digital Games for Learning about Courts

  • Supreme Court Justice Dogs Videos



Judicial Review


  • Refers to the power of the courts to determine the constitutionality of a law.
    • This power of the courts came into effect after the court case Marbury V. Madison in 1803. In this case the Supreme court decided that the court had the power to nullify laws created by States or Congress if they did not abide by the Constitution.
  • For additional Judicial Review info click here.


 Click here for a judicial review lesson plan  


"Guardian of Law" by James Earle Fraser, US Supreme Court
"Guardian of Law" by James Earle Fraser, US Supreme Court


Functions of the Courts in the United States

The United States federal court system is made up of four different types of courts.

  • United States Supreme Court
  • District courts
  • United States Courts of Appeals
  • Bankruptcy Court.

For more information, view the following lesson plan from icivics.og: Lesson plan on the Judicial Branch

View the following video Crash Course by PBS on the structure of the Supreme Court


The Supreme Court

external image Inside_the_United_States_Supreme_Court.jpg


The major federal court of the country is the Supreme Court. They have the final decision of difficult court cases that lower courts couldn't decide. The Supreme Court is where the law has the most potential to change.

The Supreme Court is made up of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight associate justices.

  • This court hears between 70 and 80 cases each year and they usually involve issues and questions about the Constitution or federal law.
    • The Supreme Court has to follow strict guidelines established by Congress when hearing cases

Who decides how many Justices are on the Court? Have there always been nine?

The Constitution places the power to determine the number of Justices in the hands of Congress. 


  • The first Judiciary Act, passed in 1789, set the number of Justices at six, one Chief Justice and five Associates. 


  • Over the years Congress has passed various acts to change this number, fluctuating from a low of five to a high of ten.


  • The Judiciary Act of 1869 fixed the number of Justices at nine and no subsequent change to the number of Justices has occurred.

external image John_Jay.jpg

Click here for the United States Supreme Court website

John Jay was first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Painting by Gilbert Stuart, 1795

 Play the following game to find out How Do Your Views Align with the Current Supreme Court Justices?

Click here for more information on the Supreme Court from the University of Missouri/Kansas City. See also the series The Supreme Court from PBS.



25 Landmark Cases in Supreme Court History

For more on the Supreme Court, link to John Marshall and judicial review



How Current Supreme Court Justices Compare with Predecessors

Click here to see the Martin-Quinn Scores, an overview of the ideological positions of Supreme Court justice since 1937 in a website created by faculty members at the University of California Berkeley School of Law.

As reported in the New York Times (July 25, 2010), Harold J. Spaeth. a professor at Michigan State University, has coded Supreme Court rulings since 1937 as conservative or liberal.


  • The most liberal justices between 1937 and 2009 were Thurgood Marshall (21% conservative votes) and William O. Douglas


  • The most conservative were Clarence Thomas (82% conservative votes) and William Rehnquist.


  • According to this measure, four of the most conservative justices since the 1930s are currently serving on the Court (Thomas, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and John Roberts).  Scalia has since been replaced by Neil Gorsuch.


Study Challenges Supreme Court's Image as Defender of Free Speech examines the Roberts Court record on First Amendment cases. It contends that the Roberts Court is ruling in favor of free speech at a lower rate than the three previous courts under Chief Justices Rehnquist, Burger, and Warren.

Click for an interactive timeline of all United States Supreme Court Justices here

Click here for a video that explains how Supreme Court judges are appointed 


Click here to learn about how the Court voted to legalize same sex marriage nationwide


Women Supreme Court Justices


 Videos – The Four Justices Series by the National Portrait Gallery

Sonia Sotomayor

Sandra Day O'Connor

Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Elena Kagan

(Teachers could separate the group into four groups and give each group one video to watch and share facts on.)


Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg


Click here for a biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark is the first picture book about her life.

Biography on Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female Supreme Court Justice

Sandra Day O'Connor
Sandra Day O'Connor

Sandra Day O'Connor. See her entry in Influential Women in American History

Ruth Bader Ginsburg. See her entry in Influential Women in American History

Sonia Sotomayor


In 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Sonya Sotomayor as the 111th Supreme Court Justice. 
  • She is the court's first Hispanic and third female justice.  
    • In 2010, she predicted that "nation's high court likely would be asked again to weigh issues of national security versus free speech because of the recently leaked classified war documents posted on the WikiLeaks website."

For a perspective on the background on the first Hispanic American to serve on the Court, see reviews on GoodReads of the book Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx.


Elena Kagan


In 2010, President Barack Obama nominated Elena Kagan as the 112 Supreme Court Justice. Kagan is a First Amendment Scholar who has written several journal articles on the free speech right.

Click here for a NYT article about Justice Kagan

President Obama nominates Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, May 2010.

Louis Brandeis

Louis Brandeis
Louis Brandeis

The First Jewish Supreme Court Justice 1916, advocated for privacy rights of citizens and upheld freedom of expression laws. More info click for biography.

external image Educational_Segregation_in_US_Prior_to_Brown_v_Board.png
Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall, 1976
Thurgood Marshall, 1976

Biography on Thurgood Marshall 

Thurgood Marshall was the first African American Supreme Court justice. Click here for a brief biography. See also the following overview of Marshall's life from Arlington National Cemetery.

Click here to learn how Thurgood Marshall and his associates won the Brown v. Board of Education case. Click here to learn more about Brown v. Board of Education. 



Lincoln Statue, Washington D.C. Court of Appeals. Photo by Matthew G. Bisanz


Statue of Lincoln, Washington D.C. Court of Appeals. Photo: Matthew G. Bisanz



Before cases reach the Supreme Court they must make their way through the other courts in the US. The US court of appeals hears cases involving patent laws and financial situations.


The 94 U.S. judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a United States court of appeals. Appeals are formal requests for change in an official decision usually made by defense attorneys to lessen the punishment of their clients.


The Gavel Gap


Examining the Demographic Compositions of U.S. Circuit and District Courts (2020)


  • Female judges make up just 27 percent of all lower federal court sitting judges and 34 percent of active judges.


  • For their part, women of color comprise just 7 percent of all sitting judges and 10 percent of all active judges serving on the lower federal courts.



United States District Courts


US district courts take all matters of law and is the starting place of any case criminal or civil. The district courts are the trial courts in the federal system and can hear any case but within limits set by Congress and the Constitution.


There are 94 federal judicial districts, including at least one district in each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. District courts are the local courts in cities and towns all over America.


Every day across the country hundreds of people are selected for jury duty which take place in district courts. People have to report to jury duty because it is an important part of the legal system. Citizens of the US have the right to a jury trial. If people disregard jury duty they can be brought into court and even jailed because it is illegal to miss jury duty.

Bankruptcy Court


Bankruptcy court is actually part of the federal courts.


The federal courts hear bankruptcy cases in each of the 94 jurisdictions across the country. Bankruptcy laws help people who can no longer pay their creditors. These courts help people get a fresh start by liquidating their assets to pay their debts, or by creating a repayment plan.


Bankruptcy laws also protect and help troubled businesses through similar means. These procedures are covered under Title 11 of the United States Code (the Bankruptcy Code).


Click here to learn more about bankruptcy. 


Click here to learn how court cases reach the Supreme Court through this lesson plan. 


     Courts of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

State courts like the ones in Massachusetts are set up like federal courts but have different laws depending on the state. Massachusetts has district courts, a supreme court, bankruptcy courts and appeals courts.

      • Click here to learn more about Massachusetts state courts. 



Digital Games for Learning about Law and the Courts

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has been a leader of iCivics, free web-based games that teach schoolchildren learn about how courts and the law function in a democratic society. “Do I Have a Right” and “Supreme Decision” (the first games on the site released in fall 2009) are geared for middle school students.

  • "Do I Have a Right” places student game players as members of a law firm that advise clients about what amendment to the constitution applies to problems presented by individuals who walk into their law office.


  • "Supreme Decision” asks students to serve as a law clerk for a justice who must write an opinion in First Amendment case that where a school district seeks to ban students from wearing music band T-shirts.

Here's a fun article about 
Teen Jury, a website about the Supreme Court created by two middle school students.



 Supreme Court Justice Dogs Videos


Cameras aren’t allowed in the Supreme Court.


Last Week Tonight with John Oliver fixed that problem with real animals and fake paws.


Feel free to take our footage (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tug71...) and reenact cases on your own. Tag them with #RealAnimalsFakePaws so we can find them


Here's the supreme court justice dogs footage: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B-qDiTIy6ZK5S2NkZGM0Z3pYSU0/view?usp=sharing


And the short video from John Oliver about the making of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJ9prhPV2PI


And an example, link to Supreme Court Dogs debate about Social Media in Schools: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1vKuLZPQsUtU-AvXrpUcnb-LXvNTp_Xpu/view?usp=sharing


Click here for a news clip about why cameras are not allowed in the Supreme Court. 



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