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 explores how the Constitution safeguards the role of judges, and brings the Constitution to life in part by connecting important judicial figures to students. 

That video 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.


How do you use it?

There are few occasions when  three  Associate Justices of the Supreme Court are on camera — much less interviewed by high school aged students. Because Supreme Court justices are usually only seen from their desks in the courtroom — unlike their counterparts in the executive and legislative branches who are seen both while "working" and in more informal environment — it is particularly compelling to hear their thoughts in this video.  

The presentation is informative, provides useful discussion questions, and directly addresses priority topics. It has clear analysis and information and the three justices give distinctive opinions.  It is fascinating, for example, when the justices explain, with examples, the elements they and other judges consider when making their decisions and how their roles differ from other figures in federal government.

That all makes the video easy to show, but the length of it may cause some students to lose focus.  If this video is to be part of a presentation, it might be useful to either show sections of the most important parts of the video, or to show the entire video, but pause every so often for discussion.  Presenters could refer to the discussion and review questions, given in the related handout.  The video would also nicely set up an in-person question-and-answer session with a judge.

The Annenberg Classroom website is a multimedia environment that gathers together videos, lesson plans, current news and interactive games.  As the site says:  "This website connects our award-winning, comprehensive curriculum on the Constitution and its amendments to daily civics news and student discussion. And when we say 'connects,' we really mean it. Twice daily, our nonpartisan writers sift through national and local news and select current events expressly for social studies classrooms. And twice weekly, they write an article on a portion of this news with links to our multimedia curriculum. You can use these articles—we call them 'Speak Outs'—in your class or right here online. When your students 'Speak Out' at AnnenbergClassroom.org, they participate in a moderated, national dialogue of their peers.  We publish up to 10 news stories a day, many media resources each year, and at least two Speak Outs each week during the school year."

Other Resources on the Annenberg Classroom Site:
Because of the range of resources on the site, judges and other presenters might find it valuable to browse deeper into the site to determine if there are other resources of value for a particular presentation.  There is special depth of curricular materials relating to the Constitution and the Courts.  Links to organizations interested in the courts can be found here.  The homepage of the site can be found here.  All the videos on the site are gathered here.

Who is the audience?

The clarity of the resource makes it appropriate for middle school as well older students; a high school audience is perhaps the best fit, as that is the age of the student questioners.

What other resources will complement this?

  1. Beyond Labels  Lesson Plan (PowerPoint) from the Florida Bar (H, A)
  2. Court Shorts: An Impartial Federal Judiciary  Videos from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (M, H, A)
  3. Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice   Video from the American Bar Association (M, H)  
  4. Talking Points on Judicial History: Judicial History and Federal Courts  Teaching module from the Federal Judicial Center (M, H, A)

Additional Recommended Resources Off-Site Links
  1. A Constitutional Timeline
    • Multi-aged audience timeline that highlights key dates in history of Constitution, with links to text, audio and video clips. From National Constitution Center's Constitution Day site. 
  2. Interactive Constitution
    • Multi-aged audience site that enables users to search Constitution by keyword or topic, with access to explanatory materials throughout. From National Constitution Center.   
  3. The Annenberg Guide to the United States Constitution
    • Multi-aged audience site that lists the text of each section of every article in the Constitution, and provides explanation of what the text means in plain language.  From the Leonore Annenberg Institute of Civics. 
  4. Understanding the Federal Courts
    • Multi-aged online textbook-type document that includes sections on Article III, the Federal Court system and the geographical boundaries of the Courts of Appeal and the District Courts, the code of conduct for judges, juror qualifications, exemptions and terms of service, as well as categories of bankruptcy cases.  From the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts.