Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Current Court

What Students Should Know About Our Court

When I meet with other AP Government teachers and we discuss the Judiciary and the Court, the topic always seems to come up of how much of the current Court we should expect the students to know. To the best of my knowledge, the multiple choice portion of the Exam has never had a question about current Court members, their ideology, their stance on judicial activism versus judicial restraint, or their views on strict versus loose construction. These topics may trickle into the Free Response questions, but in the past students could get by without specific knowledge of the current Court.

Still, I am an ardent believer that we must teach this information and incorporate it into our classes. While I have been accused of "teaching to the Exam" (guilty...isn't that our job after all?), a great deal of what I cover in my curriculum is information that every intelligent participant in our government should have in their repertoire. Having a cursory understanding of the Justices who make critical public policy is vital to understanding the policy they make. So, I spend a bit of time looking at the life, career, and beliefs of these men and women.

I will have each of my students research one of the nine current Justices and report out to the class on what they find. I give them some places to start, however information is not hard to come by on the internet. For pure biographical information, I like the Oyez site. The information is dependable and straight forward. For case information, the Cornell site is a quick and reliable reference. And of course, there is Wikipedia. We all have our opinions on Wikipedia, I have shared mine in the past. As far as the Court goes, I have found no serious errors, a plethora of quick references, and so-so discussions on Court topics. Trust Wikipedia? No, but it has it's uses for high school students. Caveat say the least. Finally, and probably most importantly, the Supreme Court's own site is the first place to send the inquiring students.

As far as books go, last week I mentioned "The Nine" by Toobin. Clarence Thomas' autobiography "My Grandfather's Son" was interesting and insightful, "Scalia Descents" was an eye opening look into the judicial understandings of Justice Scalia, and Jan Crawford Greenburg had some interesting chapters in "Supreme Conflict". For a quick project, these are probably a bit much for the kids to digest. For teachers, they are great summer reads. I also found an interesting interview transcript with John Paul Stevens, the 60 Minutes interview with Justice Scalia was very interesting, as was an NPR story on Justice Breyer. The PBS Supreme Court series does not cover the current court, but it does look at the Rehnquist Court, which gives us a great deal of insight on the Roberts Court. If you have time, it is worth viewing or having the students stream at home.

The problem is not a lack of information on the Court, there is almost too much stuff out there for the students to digest. I am sure they will find many more useful sites that you can add to a list for future use.

Here is the thing about doing a unit on the current Court. If you are lacking on time in your course, this could be an area to cut. A brief mention and the information picked up in the textbook will probably suffice test-wise. If you have the opportunity, however, I would take a few days, get into the Court personalities, and bring the modern Court alive for your students. It is a side trip well worth the effort. Next week I want to focus on a few of the important cases that are a must know for the AP students. Until then...

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