2. Judicial Independence

Overview |  The Founding Fathers framed our government based on a system of checks and balances, designed to protect our citizens from abuses that confronted them as citizens of the British empire and subjects of its monarch. Thus, our Constitution created three independent branches of government — the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judicial branch. The independence of each branch, as well as controls over each branch’s ability to exercise its authority, is included in our constitution. 

The federal judiciary is charged with ensuring that no person or institution is above the law, rendering fair and impartial decisions in the cases that are brought before the courts. This responsibility to uphold the Rule of Law includes reviewing laws that are passed by our legislative and executive branches for consistency with the Constitution in the event they are challenged. Justice depends upon the ability of judges to render impartial decisions based upon open-minded and unbiased consideration of the facts and the law in each case. This ability, in turn, depends upon the independence of judges from external political and economic pressures. Thus, the Constitution provides certain protections for the judiciary — including life appointments and protection of salary — to preserve that independence.


Learning Objectives |  Students will be able to: 
  • Understand and explain concepts of democracy, equality and the rule of law.

Summary of Resources Below is the list of resources gathered in this section.  Click on the titles to learn more. 

Resources |  
  1. A Conversation on the Constitution: Judicial Independence
    • In a half-hour video, Supreme Court Associate Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Anthony M. Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor discuss with students the critical importance of an independent judiciary to the American government and the American public.  The video, appropriate for middle school and older students, is supplemented by a one-page pdf lesson plan that in addition to listing several additional resources, gives teachers and judges a range of discussion questions and review questions.
    • Video and Lesson Plan from the Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics
    • Age: M, H, A 
  2. Beyond Labels
    • "Beyond Labels" is a multi-dimensional lesson plan for high school and college students that explores the ways labels are used by media and other commentators to explain judicial decisions.  Through moderated discussions, participants are directed to examine the meaning and importance of judicial independence as well as threats to judicial independence.  
    • Lesson Plan (PowerPoint) from the Florida Bar
    • Age: H, A 
  3. Court Shorts: An Impartial Federal Judiciary
    • In this five-minute video, students question federal judges to explain the meaning and reasons behind the principle of judicial independence, which allows judges to make decisions according to the rule of law, without the influence of private citizens and public officials or the pressure of economics, media or public opinion.  This video, geared towards middle and high school students, is a stand-alone resource and does not have a dedicated lesson plan attached to it.  
    • Video from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts
    • Age: M, H, A 

Resources | 
  1. Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice
    • This this 12-minute video can be used with middle and high school students to understand the reasons behind the principle of judicial independence.  Through historical photos and footage, as well as contemporary interviews and conversations with leading authorities, such as Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the video explores why judges need to have independence from the public and the media in order to do their jobs most responsibly.   
    • Video from the American Bar Association 
    • Age: M, H  
  2. Talking Points on Judicial History: Judicial History and Federal Courts
    • This web resource can be mined for lessons targeted to high school students.  The site gathers together a range of materials relating to judicial independence: it includes links to talking points, suggested discussion questions, historical documents, a bibliography, the full text of the Bruce Ragsdale (2006) article titled "Judicial Independence and the Federal Courts," and a PowerPoint presentation.   
    • Teaching module from the Federal Judicial Center 
    • Age: (M), H, A