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Teaching Guide

Teaching the Judicial Branch & Supreme Court


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.

Instructions for You

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.

1. Show your students Ford’s pardon proclamation. Ask them to identify the critical reasons Ford cites for pardoning the former president and briefly discuss their validity.

  • Would a prolonged legal process disrupt the nation?
    • Interfere with the “work” of the country?
      • Disrupt the economy?
      • Distract Congress?
  • Does it matter?
    • Have there been other high-profile trials?
    • Is the trial of a former president different?
  • Is it important for the country to begin healing after the divisive controversy?
    • Will a trial delay this healing?
    • Will a trial contribute to this healing?
  • Has Nixon suffered enough “punishment and degradation” without a trial?
    • Do other suspected criminals receive similar consideration?
      • 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?
  • What is best for the country?

2. Once your students have sorted out their positions ask them to read the speech delivered by President Ford about his decision. Then ask them to write a one page summary of their view on these questions.

(Lesson aligned with CA 12th grade American government standards 12.4.4, 12.7.8)

Instructions for Your Students

President Gerald Ford only became president because his predecessor, Richard Nixon, resigned in disgrace from the White House following the Watergate scandal.  

Soon after taking office, Ford gave Nixon a pardon, ensuring that Nixon would never face trial for crimes allegedly committed during the Watergate affair.  Ford's action was hugely controversial, but the Constitution puts no limit on the presidential power of the pardon.

Was Ford's use of the pardon power appropriate?  You'll be reading the original texts of both Ford's official pardon and a speech he delivered to justify it.  Then you'll have to make a case for or against Ford's use of this power.


Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.

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