The United States Supreme Court

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Course Level:
Course Length:
15 weeks

Course Objectives:

In this course we will examine the U.S. Supreme Court in terms of both its original design and its current form. Along the way we will consider the Court during a number of its most important and influential periods. From the Marshall Court to the Rehnquist Court, the United States Supreme Court has played an important, sometimes destructive, part in American politics. We will also consider the “nuts and bolts” of the present-day Court. By the end of the term you should have an enhanced understanding of the political and legal functions of the Court, and of the power that the institution holds relative to that of the other two branches of the United States government.



Course Requirements:

  • There will be two mid-term paper assignments in this class. The first paper will be assigned early in the term and will be a 5-7 page response to an open-ended question. This paper will be worth 20% of your course grade. Your second paper will be a slightly longer response to a more complex but similarly open-ended question. This paper will be 6-8 pages long, and will be worth 25% of your course grade. Late papers will be accepted, but will suffer a one grade per day penalty. I fully expect all papers to be perfect in terms of spelling and grammar. If you are incapable of writing at an appropriate level, please see me early and often for help. I am happy to read drafts of your work ahead of time, and there is help available through the college.
  • You will also have a take-home final which will be worth 40% of your final grade. The topic for this essay will be handed out well in advance of the due date. This assignment will be due at the scheduled ending time for your in-class final exam.
  • The remaining 15% of your grade will be reflective of your participation in the class. Please be aware that although participation is only worth 15% of your grade I will penalize you in excess of 15% of your final grade for excessive absences. Any more than three absences will most certainly impact your grade. If you are having trouble with attendance, please see me about it early, because I will not accept any excuses late. You can (and will) fail this class for excessive absences. I expect you to be in class on time. I also expect you to be prepared. Please read at least one major American newspaper every day. Cell phones and pagers are not allowed in class at any time. If yours goes off, you will be asked to leave.
  • Learning begins with reading and thinking, but is greatly enhanced by argument and debate with others who share dissimilar views. While argument and debate is expected and encouraged, so too is respect for your fellow students with whom you will invariably disagree. In a class this large, meaningful discussion may seem to be an impossibility, but I assure you that it is the fastest way to master the material at hand. Once you have spent time reading and thinking, your writing assignments and exams will become much easier. It is important, and thus required, that you keep up with your reading.
  • Please note that this syllabus is not a contract, and should not be understood as such. I reserve the right to alter any of the terms and conditions contained herein as I deem necessary.


Academic Honesty:

Plagiarism will not be tolerated in this class. I urge you to familiarize yourself with the rules of academic honesty immediately. As students it is your responsibility to know and follow the rules. Any instance of cheating will be met by automatic failure in this class and referral to the Dean of Academic Affairs for further sanctions. Please note that ignorance of the rules is no excuse for this sort of behavior. If you have any questions, please see me in office hours or ask them in class. I am always happy to address this issue before it becomes a problem. No excuse will be sufficient after the fact.


Required Texts:

  • Storm Center: The Supreme Court in American Politics, Sixth Edition, David M. O’Brien, W. W. Norton, 2003. ISBN: 0-393-97896-6
  • The Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, Vintage Books, 2001. ISBN: 0-375-70861-8.
  • All other readings on this syllabus will be made available to you on Blackboard. You must print these supplementary readings and bring them to class with you. You will be asked to leave the room if you do not have all of your assigned readings with you. I have included publishers’ information above for those of you who might want to consider buying your textbooks someplace other than the university bookstore. has been known to offer significant discounts that you might not otherwise be able to get. You can also purchase used books from Amazon. The required texts are available at the bookstore.



Course Outline:

  1. Introduction.
    1. No Readings.
    2. The Court Through History
  2. The Design of the Supreme Court.
    1. Readings: The Federalist 78-83. The United States Constitution.
  3. The Court Assumes Power: The Marshall Court, Judicial Review, and Federal Supremacy.
    1. Readings: Rehnquist, chapters 1-2, The Judiciary Act of 1789.
    2. Cases: Marbury v. Madison, McCulloch v. Maryland.
    3. Paper One Due
  4. 'The Lowest Ebb: The Taney Court, Dred Scott, and the Civil War.
    1. Readings: Rehnquist, chapter 3. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, Abraham Lincoln, Speech on the Dred Scott Decision.
    2. Case: Dred Scott v. Sandford.
  5. The New Deal Court.
    1. Readings: Rehnquist, chapters 6-7, Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Court-Packing” Address.
  6. The Warren Court.
    1. Readings: Rehnquist chapter 10, Martin J. Horwitz, “Brown v. Board of Education: Setting the Themes of the Warren Court.”
    2. Cases: Brown v. Board of Education, Bolling v. Sharpe.
    3. Paper Two Due
    4. The Modern American Court
  7. The Court Today: The Politics of Justice.
    1. Readings: O’Brien, chapters 1-3, Rehnquist, chapter 11.
  8. Getting to the Court.
    1. Readings: O’Brien, chapter 4, Rehnquist, chapter 12.
  9. The Court at Work.
    1. Readings: Rehnquist, chapters 13-14, O’Brien, chapter 5.
  10. The Court and American Life.
    1. Readings: O’Brien, chapter 6.
Final Exam Due