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Lesson Plan: Federal Court Structure
Structure of the Federal Court System
L. Ralph Mecham, Director of the U.S. District Court System, explains the three levels of the Federal Court System.
The Judicial Branch’s powers are outlined in Article III of the United States Constitution. Article III creates the U.S. Supreme Court and gives Congress the ability to create “inferior” courts, which make up our federal court system. Students will begin the lesson by learning about the three levels of the Federal Court System. Students will continue in the lesson to gain an understanding of how the three levels of federal court work together through following the landmark Supreme Court case Katz v. U.S., through the court system.
Before beginning the lesson, have students test their understanding of the following vocabulary words. You may print this out or you may assign it to each student individually using Google Classroom or Schoology or another classroom platform. This activity is divided into two pages.
Activity: Vocabulary Drag and Drop Activity (Google Slides)
- Original Jurisdiction
- Appellate Jurisdiction
As a class, view the video clip linked below and have the students work in groups to complete the graphic organizer
Video Clip: Structure of the Federal Court System (3:41)
Graphic Organizer: Federal Court System (Google Doc)
The link for the video is in the graphic organizer so students may listen as many times as they need to hear all the information needed to complete the organizer. You could also assign the Graphic Organizer to students individually using Google Classroom or Schoology or another platform. Remember to make a copy before assigning to students.
At the bottom of the organizer students will go to the Federal Court Finder on the uscourts.gov website to find the Circuit and District courts that represent their location.
Here is a KEY for the Graphic Organizer
Assign students to complete the Katz v. United States Assignment on the handout linked below. Remember to make a copy of the document before assigning to each student. You will be able to post this assignment in Google Classroom, Schoology, or other platforms. Students will independently work through the presentation, viewing video clips and answering questions within the presentation.
Assignment: Katz v. United States (Google Slides)
Answer Key for Katz v United States Assignment
Video Clip: Who was Charles Katz (:48)
Video Clip: The Beginning of Katz v U.S. (1:12)
Video Clip: Laws Broken in Katz v U.S. ( :57)
Video Clip: Tracing Katz v U.S. Through the Court System (1:29)
Video Clip: Katz v U.S. Timeline (:40)
Video Clip: Reasons for Circuit Court Decision, Katz v U.S. (:28)
Video Clip: Reason Supreme Court will Agree to Hear a Case (1:14)
Video Clip: Decision in Katz v. U.S. (1:38)
- Video Clip: Reaction to Decision in Katz v U.S. (:26)
Have students watch the video clip below and give students 5 minutes to write down their thoughts on the extent to how the decision in this case should apply to current methods of communication and technologies. This is a Quick Write. Students do not need to write in complete sentences and it does not need to be collected. As a whole class, students share their ideas and thoughts. You could also turn the quick write into an essay, for students to complete as an assessment.
Video Clip: Future of Privacy Rights (2:57)
- Bell Ringer: How Does the Supreme Court Decide Which Cases to Hear
- Bell Ringer: The Federal Court System
- Federal Laws
Skip to main navigation
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Work with federal judges in the distance-learning space to bring the founding fundamentals of rule of law, separation of powers, and judicial independence into real-life.
Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions
Students practice civil discourse skills and evidence-based decision making while dealing with teen-relevant issues in realistic courtroom simulations. Judges preside and volunteer attorneys coach the students.
Financial Literacy: Financial Firsts Can Be Financial Pitfalls
Financial firsts in the lives of young people can become financial pitfalls. Explore this activity to discuss life skills needed to navigate personal finances successfully.
First Amendment Activities
Apply landmark Supreme Court cases to contemporary scenarios related to the five pillars of the First Amendment and your rights to freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition.
Fourth Amendment Activities
Apply landmark Supreme Court cases to contemporary scenarios related to search and seizure issues at your school, in your car, and your home.
Fifth Amendment Activities
Apply landmark Supreme Court cases to contemporary scenarios related to your rights when you are in police custody.
Sixth Amendment Activities
Apply landmark Supreme Court cases to contemporary scenarios related to your right to counsel and your right to a fair trial.
Distance Learning: Civics for Civic Engagement in the Federal Courts
Judges and attorneys work with high school students at home and in school as they engage with interactive modules on contemporary issues that teach the relevance of rule of law, separation of powers, judicial independence, and jury service in daily life.
U.S. Courts of Appeals and Their Impact on Your Life
What are the U.S. Courts of Appeals and what is their role? These courts are the last word in the vast majority of cases heard in federal courts. Learn more about the U.S. Courts of Appeals.
Judicial Branch in a Flash!
Need to teach the judicial branch in a hurry? In this lesson, students learn the basics of our judicial system, including the functions of the trial court, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court. Students learn how a case moves up through these levels and discover that these courts exist on both the state and federal levels.
iCivics en español! Student and class materials for this lesson are available in Spanish.
Get access to lesson plans, teacher guides, student handouts, and other teaching materials.
- Judicial Branch in a Flash_Student Docs.pdf
- Judicial Branch in a Flash_Teacher Guide.pdf
- Spanish_Judicial Branch in a Flash_Student Docs.pdf
- Spanish_Judicial Branch in a Flash_Teacher Docs.pdf
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Lynna Landry , AP US History & Government / Economics Teacher and Department Chair, California
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US government and civics
Course: us government and civics > unit 2.
- Article III of the Constitution
- Marbury v. Madison
- Federalist No. 78
The judicial branch: lesson overview
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Teaching the judicial branch & supreme court.
- Activities: 5
- Quiz Questions: 43
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The judicial branch is the most glamorous branch of government—just check out the stylish robes on the Notorious RBG . Let's take a tasteful peek behind the robes, shall we?
In this guide you will find
- activities analyzing judicial review, judicial activism, judicial restraint, and other terms that begin with the word "judicial."
- a timeline activity chronicling the changing size of the court.
- discussion questions on the Articles of Confederation, the Federalist Legacy, and more scandals than an episode of The Good Wife.
Judge Shmoop finds this teaching guide guilty…of being stellar.
What's Inside Shmoop's Civics Teaching Guides
Shmoop is a labor of love from folks who love to teach. Our teaching guides will help you supplement in-classroom learning with fun, engaging, and relatable learning materials that bring civics to life.
Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:
- 4-10 Common Core-aligned activities (including quotation, image, and document analysis) to complete in class with your students, with detailed instructions for you and your students.
- Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
- Reading quizzes to be sure students are looking at the material through various lenses.
- Resources to help make the topic feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
- A note from Shmoop's teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the topic and how you can overcome the hurdles.
Want more help teaching Teaching the Judicial Branch & Supreme Court?
Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.
Instructions for You
Objective: The judicial branch is by design largely independent of political intervention. Judges serve for life and their decisions are not subject to routine review by the other branches.
The president, however, possesses the authority to grant pardons and reprieves. The power is virtually unlimited—only impeachments are beyond his intervention. Yet for the most part presidents have exercised this power infrequently.
In this exercise your student will review and evaluate President Gerald Ford’s pardon of President Richard Nixon.
Length of Lesson: One class period + an essay assignment
- Proclamation 4311: Granting Pardon to Richard Nixon, by President Gerald Ford
- Gerald Ford's Remarks on Pardoning President Nixon, September 8, 1974
Step One: Show your students Proclamation 4311: Granting Pardon to Richard Nixon , by President Gerald Ford . Give them time to read it (or read it aloud) and ask them to identify the critical reasons Ford cites for pardoning the former president. They can jot down notes citing the key reasons they notice as they read or listen.
Step Two: Have students identify Ford's reasons for pardoning Nixon. Write these on the board as they are mentioned, and then briefly discuss their validity. The questions below may help to guide your conversation.
- If Nixon were to go to trial, what effect might that have on the country, according to Ford?
- How long does Ford think the legal process would take? Why is this factor important to him?
- Do you think Ford has made a good case for his pardon?
- What effect do you think a trial of a former president would have had on the country at that time?
- Would a trial have delayed this healing?
- Would it have contributed to this healing?
- Explain your answer.
- Do you agree that Nixon suffered enough “punishment and degradation” without a trial? Why or why not?
- Should they?
- Is public humiliation and loss of position adequate punishment for certain types of people?
- Do presidents deserve an entirely different sort of consideration? Why or why not?
- If such a situation should arise again, what do you think would be best for the country? To pardon a president, or to have a trial? Explain.
Step Two: Once your students have sorted out their positions ask them to read Gerald Ford's Remarks on Pardoning President Nixon , delivered on September 8, 1974.
Step Three: Finally, ask students to write an essay in which they take a stance as to whether or not President Ford made the right decision when he pardoned Richard Nixon. They should be sure to support or rebut Ford's reasons for acting as he did and explain their reasoning.
(Lesson aligned with CA 12th grade American government standards 12.4.4, 12.7.8)
Instructions for Your Students
Some people get elected to the presidency of the United States. Others get there when the current president has to resign in disgrace following a long, drawn out controversy.
Okay. So only one person has ever become president the second way: President Gerald Ford. He was Vice President when Nixon had to resign after the Watergate scandal.
Soon after taking office, Ford started a controversy of his own. He gave Nixon a full pardon, ensuring that Nixon would never face trial for crimes allegedly committed during the Watergate affair.
So... was Ford's use of the pardon power appropriate? Sure, the Constitution places no limits on the presidential power of the pardon, but still—should he have done it? That's what you'll be deciding today.
Step One: Take a look at Proclamation 4311: Granting Pardon to Richard Nixon, by President Gerald Ford. As you read it (or as someone in your class reads it aloud), try to identify the critical reasons Ford cites for pardoning the former president.
Step Two: With your teacher and classmates, identify Ford's reasons for pardoning Nixon. Someone can write these on the board as they are mentioned, and then you and your classmates can briefly discuss their validity.
The questions below may help to guide your conversation.
Step Two: Now read Gerald Ford's Remarks on Pardoning President Nixon, delivered on September 8, 1974. Ford goes into greater detail about how he came to his decision in these remarks.
Step Three: Time to take a stand. Did Ford do the right thing or not?
Write an essay in which you take a stance on this question. Be sure to support or rebut Ford's reasons for acting as he did and explain your reasoning.
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W hy's T his F unny?
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