The Importance of Precedents

General Description

Lesson Goal(s):
Understand the importance of precedents and Supreme Court rulings.

Essential Question(s):
How do precedents impact Supreme Court rulings?

Lesson Plan:
  • Provide students with a  brief introduction on the process of bringing cases before the Supreme Court.
  • Divide students into teams of “lawyers,”  hired to argue cases before the Court.
  • Organize students into groups of four and have each group choose their Constitutional case. Each team should be given a short background reading on each of the current events/constitutional questions to help them decide which case to take: (a) NSA wiretaps; (b) Fisher vs. University of Texas; (c) "Stand Your Ground" laws; (d) Wikileaks; (e) Abortion; (f) Gay Marriage; and (g) Arizona SB 1070
  • Each group of four should work in two a pairs to prepare their case before the Court—one pair will argue each side of the case. (Option for larger classes: Three students will remain unassigned and will serve as the Supreme Court justices and will make the ruling. These students must research the cases as well so they make an informed decision after hearing the arguments.)
  • During research, students should take care to use primary sources, using the resources.
  • Have each group present their case.  After each case the students will work as a class to function as the Supreme Court and decide the case - a majority and dissenting opinion should be identified.


Students will then write a reflection on the activity. The reflection should address each of the following:

  • What new precedent would be established by the ruling in your case?
  • Is there a point when these Constitutional questions might be closed? In other words, when are these questions no longer a source of controversy and we can all agree?
  • In what way is the Supreme Court crucial in establishing precedents? To what extent is our legal system based on precedent?

Supporting Materials:
  • Amar, Akhil. America’s Unwritten Constitution: the Precedents and Principles We Live By. New York: Basic Books, 2012
  • Oyez U.S. Supreme Court Media
  • The Supreme Court of the United States
  • Gale Opposing Viewpoints
  • Defining Documents in American History

Materials and Documents

Overall, I want to thank everyone who presented at this workshop. It’s one of the most valuable I’ve attended in my career. It featured content, materials, and ideas that could be used immediately in the classroom.
- Jonathan L’Ecuyer, Pinkerton Academy
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