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Supreme Court Deliberations

Agenda - Total Time: 2.5 Hours

In the Classroom

Preparation for the Courthouse Event

Before attending this event, students and their teachers master the prepared materials. For the purposes of this simulation, these materials are considered the briefs presented by the lawyers in one of the Supreme Court cases posted on this site.

Teachers organize students into the following job descriptions, before they read the materials:

  • Nine groups of law clerks argue the case in small groups headed by a pre-selected top student who is an Associate Justice.
  • Eight student Associate Justices – each assigned the position of a real-life Justice on the selected case – are leaders of the eight discussion groups.
  • The host federal judge serves as Chief Justice and leads the ninth group of law clerks in discussion. This judge uses his or her own name – not that of the current Chief Justice.

In the classroom, the teacher selects eight top students to serve as Associate Justices and leaders of their small groups. The student Justices are assigned the position of a real-life Justice. To avoid limiting participation by gender, students should be assigned "the position of Justice _______. " The Associate Justices wear a tag with their name.

Job Description:  Associate Justices

The task of the student Justices is to study the opinion of their real-life Justice counterpart and prepare themselves to present to their small group a five-minute summary of the following:

  • Three or four key points from that Justice's opinion. Whether they agree or disagree with the points and why.
  • Invite the law clerks in their small group to comment, one at a time, on any of the points made.
  • Facilitate, with the attorney volunteer, an open discussion in which everyone has the opportunity to speak without interruption. This can be done with a talking stick.* The stick is passed around the circle once so that everyone has an initial opportunity to speak. After that, any student may speak in any order, but only when they have the talking stick.

*A talking stick is an object (a gavel, pen, paperweight, etc.) that is placed within reach of all participants in a discussion circle. Before taking the floor, the speaker must pick up the talking stick. No one else may speak to the group or to anyone else while someone is holding the talking stick. When the speaker is finished, the stick is returned to the center of the group.

Job Description:  Law Clerks Assigned to Eight Associate Justices' Small Groups

The other students in each group are law clerks who work with their assigned Justice and play a vital role in the process. Law clerks research the positions of those Justices who disagree with their Justice so that they can ask tough questions and sharpen the thinking of their particular boss. Law clerks present alternative views and challenge the position of their Justice. Each law clerk is allowed to speak only once until all have spoken, then they may speak again, always using the talking stick.

Job Description:  Ninth Group of Law Clerks Assigned to the Federal Judge

The ninth group does not have a student Associate Justice. This group is assigned to the presiding/hosting federal judge who is the Chief Justice in the simulation. Although Chief Justice Roberts did not participate in this case in real life, for purposes of this simulation, the host Judge/Chief Justice __________ (last name of federal judge) will. The students assigned to the federal Judge's group should study the entire case based on the talking points handout provided, plus any additional research they wish to do. They will discuss the case with the presiding judge. The Judge will use the talking points questions as a guide but will not be limited to the questions suggested.

In the classroom prior to the event, the teacher thoroughly reviews the program, process, and materials with the students so that they know what to expect, prepare their positions as stated in the Supreme Court opinion, and are ready to participate fully at the courthouse.

At the Courthouse

Courthouse Orientation (Total of 15 Minutes)

Lawyers present an overview of pertinent issues to help students get the most out of the program, including an overview of pertinent Supreme Court procedures.

Stage One: Justices Meet with Their Law Clerks
Scenario Instructions (Total of 30 Minutes)

In this simulation, oral arguments in the selected Supreme Court case have just concluded. The Justices are about to go into Conference to decide the case. Before they do so, they discuss it with their law clerks. At this point, none of the Justices is committed to a position.

In the courtroom/courthouse, the groups meet with their respective student Justice. Ideally, a volunteer lawyer is assigned to each group to facilitate the process, except the Chief Justice's (federal judge's) group. If that isn't possible, volunteer attorneys wander among the groups, answering questions and assisting as needed.

Process for Meeting with Law Clerks
Law Clerks Offer Input (15 Minutes)

Each law clerk who wishes to offer input to the Justice in the group may speak once. No law clerk may speak again until all law clerks have spoken.

Justices Ask Questions (15 Minutes)

The Justice chooses not to interrupt the law clerks until all those who wish to have spoken once. When they are finished, the Justice, who has been writing down questions and comments, asks questions. After the first person responds, another law clerk may comment only after being acknowledged by the Justice. Throughout this session, the Justices take notes. At the end of the session, each Justice indicates to the small group how he/she might vote in the Conference. Each Justice is free to change his/her position during the Justices' Conference. Student Justices are not obligated to vote the way that their Justice on the Court voted.

Stage Two: Justices' Conference 
Scenario Instructions (Total of 30 Minutes)

All of the student Justices sit at a table in the well of the courtroom for their Conference. They sit in order of seniority. Court staff will direct the seating. Court staff distribute blank index cards to everyone in the audience at this time - one per person.

In real life, no one except the Justices is permitted in the conference room when they discuss cases. For purposes of adding more student interaction to this simulation, students and volunteer attorneys observe the Conference, and the students are allowed to raise questions for the Court to consider by passing the index cards to a staff person in the front of the room. The staff person screens the questions for relevance and redundancy.

Process for the Conference

Justices State their Positions (20 Minutes)

According to Supreme Court protocol, the Chief Justice (in this instance, the federal judge presiding over the simulation) calls the Conference to order. All of the Justices shake hands. The Chief Justice then announces the case name. Each Justice, in ascending order (from most junior to most senior) states his/her views, without interruption by other Justices. The student Justices do the same presentation they did in their small group - summarizing the main point of the real-life Justice, then giving their own position.

Floor Interaction (10 Minutes)

To add another element of interaction in the program, the following is suggested. Before voting, the Justices permit any member of the floor (the student law clerks) to make comments or ask questions. Each question is written on a card and passed to the Chief Justice (real Judge), who screens them for relevance and redundancy. The Chief Justice reads the questions to all of the Justices, who debate it. Nothing like this occurs in real life.

Stage Three: Vote and Opinion 
Scenario Instructions  (Total of 20 Minutes)

The Justices retire to a private room where they 1) vote; 2) each writes his/her own one-page (or less) opinion. During this time, there is a break for students to use the restrooms and visit one-on-one with the volunteer lawyers. The Justices return to the courtroom where each Justice presents his/her opinion to the large group.

Votes (5 Minutes)

When the Justices are finished entertaining questions from the floor, they retire to a private area and vote. In accordance with Supreme Court protocol, the most junior Justice casts the first vote, followed by the others in ascending order of seniority. The Chief Justice may cast the final vote or abstain. For purposes of this simulation it is acceptable if there is a tie.

Process for Writing/Releasing Opinions

Writing Opinions (10 Minutes)

Student Justices in both the majority and dissent write his/her own opinion. Each opinion may be no longer than one handwritten page.

Announcing Opinions (5 Minutes)

When the Justices are finished deliberating, each Justice announces his/her decision from the bench.

Stage Four: Debriefing (Total of 30 Minutes)

The presiding/host Judge, serving as the Chief Justice in the simulation, returns to his/her real-life role and facilitates a debriefing session in which he/she mentions points of interest in the students' debates; explains how the actual Supreme Court handled this case (i.e., how the Supreme Court's findings compared to the students'); offers information about his/her career and the role of a judge.

DISCLAIMER: These resources are created by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts for educational purposes only. They may not reflect the current state of the law, and are not intended to provide legal advice, guidance on litigation, or commentary on any pending case or legislation.