Civic Literacy Curriculum
Question 52: What is the highest court in the United States?
Q52: What is the highest court in the United States?
A. The District Court
B. The Circuit Court
C. The Superior Court
D. The Supreme Court
“The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish”- Article III of the U.S. Constitution This means that the Constitution specifically creates a Supreme Court as the highest in the country, but allows Congress to create other, lower courts to hear additional cases.
Today, there are three levels of federal courts. The United States Supreme Court, circuit courts, and district courts. The highest court in the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court hears appeals both from these lower federal courts as well as state courts. The Circuit Courts hear appeals from district courts. The District Courts hear disputes about federal law. The division of labor aims to make sure that the Supreme Court can hear cases to set precedents that the lower courts can then apply in similar situations; this prevents the Supreme Court from being overwhelmed. (There are several situations where the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction, meaning it can also hear cases as a trial court, but this happens rarely today.)
State court systems use largely similar three-tiered systems, usually led by a state supreme court. (Some states use different terms for their courts, but the structure is the same) These courts mostly apply and interpret state law, which means they have far more to do than federal courts, but they also sometimes consider federal constitutional law as well. State supreme courts are supreme in their own interpretations of state law, but when a state supreme court is hearing a case about whether a state law violates the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court can hear an appeal from a state supreme court. This is to ensure that there is a consistent understanding of federal law.
Determining whether or not a law is constitutional is not always easy. It requires the Court to look not only at the law itself but also at how it might be applied. Sometimes, it is the way a law is worded that renders it unconstitutional. This activity presents students with the chance to discuss a new possible law and use the First Amendment and Supreme Court precedent to determine whether all, some, or none of its parts is constitutional.
- Provide each group with a copy of the following:
- First Amendment Exercise: Matal v. Tam and Proposed Bill
- First Amendment Socratic Study Questions
- Socratic Seminar Guidelines
- A rubric is available if this is a graded activity.
- If you wish, have a “speaking stick” -- generally a small object that denotes the speaker. This is usually a beanbag or small plush animal. Whoever holds the “stick” is the speaker. When finished speaking, the student chooses the next speaker by handing or gently tossing it to the next speaker.
- Allow students time to prepare -- at least a class period. Depending on the class, you may want to assign the reading a few days in advance.
The Teaching Materials for this exercise includes a rubric.
- On the day that you introduce the assignment, review the guidelines for a successful Socratic seminar.
- On the day of the seminar, arrange the desks in a circle.
- If using a “speaking stick” for the first time, explain the rules of use to the students.
- Begin the seminar by asking for someone to share his or her answer to one of the questions provided.
- Let the students take it from there. If conversation begins to lag, then ask a question to move it forward.
Alternative Classroom Setup
Rather than have one large circle, you may wish to have an inner circle and an outer circle. The inner-circle participants will discuss the excerpt and ideas, and the outer circle participants will take notes on the points raised. About halfway through the seminar, you can have the two groups switch.
Below are two discussion prompts that can be used by teachers in a classroom setting.
- The first discussion prompt will be one that is designed to support students that are not really understanding the content in a way that would help them to answer the test question.
- The second discussion prompt will be one that is designed to further student understanding of the content by making real-world connections, including connections to current events and historical events.
The Supreme Court itself is named in Article III of the Constitution, but the other courts are not. In fact, the Constitution simply says that inferior courts will be created by Congress -- and that’s all. The appellate and district courts that have since been created are all federal courts and all derive their power from that sentence in the Constitution.
One way to explain the judicial branch’s role is to say that it is to “make sure that the other two branches play by the rules and follow the Constitution.” This is actually pretty accurate since it is the judicial branch’s job to make sure that laws are constitutional. To do this, there are actually several levels to the court system. Our question today refers to the highest court in the land. What is the name of this high court and where does its power come from?
The Articles of Confederation did not create a separate federal court system, and there were some who have argued the U.S. Constitution did not need a supreme court, either, that state supreme courts could do the job enforcing the Constitution. Why would we want one Supreme Court ultimately interpreting federal law? What might be some disadvantages of only having one ultimate interpreter of the US Constitution? Use past or current events in your answer.