A Must-See Movie in Schools

The film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” follows the political life of a (fictitious) U.S. Senator Jefferson Smith. Mr. Smith is handpicked to replace a senator who has passed away, because political cronies believe he’ll take orders and not think for himself. To avoid spoilers, I’ll leave it at that. What’s remarkable about this movie is, that while it’s very entertaining, it also serves as an excellent civics lesson.

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In this scene Senator Smith is poring over his constituents’ mail in the Senate Chamber.

The film teaches what happens when a new Senator is elected or appointed, how a bill becomes law, the duties of the President of the Senate, what it means to filibuster, the proper decorum in the Senate Chamber, including how seating is arranged; and the impact fake news can have on day-to-day lives. It also treats the viewer to a tour of many of Washington D.C.’s landmarks. It’s a must-see.

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On This Date in Legal History

Since George Washington was the first president, he appointed every justice to the first Supreme Court.  On April 3, 1790, he wrote a letter to the justices expressing his belief that “the Judiciary System should not only be independent in its operations, but as perfect as possible in its formation.”

In 1789 George Washington nominated John Jay as Chief Justice of the new United States Supreme Court.

In 1789 George Washington appointed John Jay as Chief Justice of the new United States Supreme Court.

Read Washington’s letter at http://goo.gl/qrWIWx, and learn about the first Supreme Court at https://goo.gl/vGJMLo.

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On This Date in Legal History

On April 2, 2012, the United States Supreme Court decided Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington.  The question in the case was– whether it was constitutional for correctional officers to strip-search an individual arrested for a minor offense.  The Justices held (in a 5:4 decision) that the search didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment.  They were swayed by the argument that strip searching can be necessary when trying to maintain order and safety in a prison.

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Justice Kennedy has been serving on the U.S. Supreme Court since February 18, 1988.

You can listen to Justice Kennedy’s opinion announcement at https://goo.gl/2jgvcG.

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Happy Birthday Justice Alito!

On April 1, 1950, Samuel A. Alito, Jr., was born in Trenton, New Jersey.  Justice Alito has been serving on the United States Supreme Court since January 31, 2006.  He was nominated by President George W. Bush to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

To learn more about Justice Alito, read the New York Times write-up from the day he was sworn in at http://goo.gl/jP97xr, and Linda Greenhouse’s Op-Ed piece at http://goo.gl/dgCpfe.

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On This Date in Legal History

In 1965 Joseph Lee Jones tried to purchase a home in St. Louis County, Missouri.  The developer refused to sell to him because he was African American, so he sued.  On April 1, 1968, his case was argued before the United States Supreme Court.  On June 17, 1968, the Court held (in a 7-2 decision) in his favor.

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In 1958 President Eisenhower nominated Potter Stewart to the United States Supreme Court. He served on the Court for over 22 years.

Justice Stewart, who authored the majority opinion for the Court, explained that federal law “barred all racial discrimination in the sale of property by private individuals and public authorities.”  Learn more at https://goo.gl/VM3koT.

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On This Date in Legal History

On March 31, 1976, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Gregg v. Georgia on whether the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.  You can listen to the Court proceedings at https://goo.gl/cTlWbr.  On July 2, 1976, the Court held that “the punishment of death does not invariably violate the Constitution.”

02 Jul 1976, Reidsville, Georgia, USA --- Reidsville, Georgia: Troy Leon Gregg, 23, is one of 30 people waiting on Georgia's death row at Reidsville after convicted of a 1973 killing of two Florida hitchhikers. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state's death penalty. --- Image by © The Bettmann Archive/CORBIS

Defendant Troy Gregg.         Image by © The Bettmann Archive/CORBIS

 

 

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The 15th Amendment

On March 30, 1870, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish certified that the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified by the states.  The Amendment granted African-American men the right to vote.  Learn more at https://goo.gl/GH4Ywy and https://goo.gl/sNepQt.

 

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On This Date in Legal History

On March 29, 1875, the United States Supreme Court decided Minor v. Happersett. Virginia Minor sued after she was prevented from registering to vote because she was a woman.  She alleged that her Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated.  A lower court didn’t agree, so she appealed to the Supreme Court.  The Court affirmed the lower court’s decision, finding that limiting the right to vote to male citizens wasn’t unconstitutional.  Chief Justice Waite wrote, “For nearly ninety years the people have acted upon the idea that the Constitution, when it conferred citizenship, did not necessarily confer the right of suffrage [the right to vote].”  It took until 1920, forty-five years later, for Congress to ratify the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote.  See https://goo.gl/YLokLK.

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This jail door pin was given to suffragists imprisoned for picketing the White House.

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On This Date in Legal History

In March 1897 the case of United States v. Wong Kim Ark was argued before the United States Supreme Court. The following facts were presented– Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco in 1873, and he continuously maintained a residence there. When he was around twenty-one years old, he visited relatives in China. Upon his return, he was prevented from re-entering the United States because his parents were of Chinese descent. The United States District Attorney argued that his case fell under no exception to the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Supreme Court disagreed.

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During this time in American history, inspectors probed each person of Chinese descent attempting to enter the country. They tried to place barriers to their entrée. (The New York Historical Society Chinese Exclusion Act Exhibit.)

On March 28, 1898, Justice Gray wrote, “the American citizenship which Wong Kim Ark acquired by birth within the United States has not been lost or taken away by anything happening since his birth.” “That said Wong Kim Ark has not, either by himself or his parents acting for him, ever renounced his allegiance to the United States, and that he has never done or committed any act or thing to exclude him therefrom.” Learn more at http://goo.gl/CbWqIK.

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On This Date in Legal History

In 1944 Irene Amos Morgan, an African American woman, was traveling on a bus in Virginia (on her way to Maryland) when she was asked by the driver to give up her seat for a white passenger. She was told to move to a seat in the back of the bus where other African Americans were seated. She refused—so she was arrested and convicted of violating a Virginia statute that required separation of the races on trains and buses traveling interstate. She appealed her conviction, but the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia upheld the lower court’s decision. Her case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

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Prior to becoming the first African American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall worked tirelessly to end segregation in the Deep South, where he often put his life in harm’s way.

On March 27, 1946, Thurgood Marshall argued her case (along with William H. Hastie) before the Supreme Court. On June 3, 1946, the Court held in Ms. Morgan’s favor finding the Virginia law invalid. You can learn more about Irene Amos Morgan, and this case, at http://1.usa.gov/1ML3lJl.

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On This Date in Legal History

On March 26, 1930, Sandra Day O’Connor was born in El Paso, Texas. Happy birthday, Justice O’Connor.

President Reagan sent a letter to the U.S. Senate confirming his nomination of Justice O’Connor to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court on August 19, 1981, when she was serving on the Arizona Court of Appeals. Take a look at that letter at https://goo.gl/6NDxeS. The Senate unanimously confirmed her appointment, and on September 25, 1981, she was sworn in. She became the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Justice Sandra Day O’Connor served on the Supreme Court from September 25, 1981 to January 31, 2006.

You can learn a lot about the justice by listening to this NPR interview at https://goo.gl/ns8hnT.

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On This Date in Legal History

On January 30, 1970, two police officers saw a teenager ( the “Appellee” in the case of Smith v. Goguen) on a street in Leominster, Massachusetts, with an American flag sewn to the seat of his pants. The teen was arrested for violating a Massachusetts law that prohibited treating the flag contemptuously. A jury found him guilty, and he was sentenced to six months in jail. His case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and on March 25, 1974, the Court found the law unconstitutionally vague.

Justice Powell explained, the statute “at issue is void for vagueness as applied to [Appellee] because it subjected him to criminal liability under a standard so indefinite that police, court, and jury were free to react to nothing more than their own preferences for treatment of the flag.” Listen to the Supreme Court proceedings at https://goo.gl/OUoeKq.

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On This Date in Legal History

On March 24, 2009, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments, for the first time, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Justice Kagan, who was Solicitor General at the time, argued the Government’s position during reargument on September 9, 2009, which you can listen to at https://goo.gl/IPwcs3. On January 21, 2010, the Court held in a 5:4 decision that restrictions placed on corporate spending, to support or chastise a candidate running for office, are unconstitutional.

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Justice Elena Kagan, who currently serves on our Supreme Court, served as the 45th Solicitor General of the United States from March 2009- August 2010.

Now many people fear corporations have too much influence over our elections.  An engaging, animated, video by “The Story of Stuff” illustrates their argument. You can watch it at https://goo.gl/4Kt3iA. Contrast the foregoing with Justice Scalia’s view on the case at https://goo.gl/TQmGHo.

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In The News This Week

President Trump nominated Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch to serve on the United States Supreme Court. This past week Judge Gorsuch testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senators questioned him about his qualifications, his views on Supreme Court decisions, hot-button legal issues, and laws on the books. Since 1981, the hearings have been televised. Every middle and high school social studies and civics class should tap into this freebie—these recorded hearings can serve as invaluable lessons about our judicial branch.

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Judge Neil Gorsuch

We should be encouraging our students to be active participants in our democracy. To do so, we must expose them to a great deal more about how our courts work, and these hearings are a great tool.

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Remembering Felix Frankfurter

On November 15, 1882, former Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter was born in Austria. In 1939, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt nominated him to the United States Supreme Court. Unlike nowadays, it wasn’t customary for nominees to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, however, after his religious beliefs (he was Jewish), his associations with the ACLU, and his foreign birth came under attack, he relented. In the end, the Senate confirmed his nomination, and he served on the Court until he retired on August 28, 1962. On February 22, 1965, Justice Frankfurter passed away. Learn more about his work as a lawyer, presidential advisor, professor, and justice at http://goo.gl/RoPCEe.

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Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter of the United States Supreme Court

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On This Date in Legal History

Gregory Lee Johnson was arrested for burning an American flag as a means of protesting President Reagan’s policies. He timed his demonstration to coincide with the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. The delegates were meeting to renominate Reagan for president. He was convicted of violating a Texas law that made it a crime to desecrate a state or national flag, and was fined $2,000, and sentenced to a year in the county jail. Johnson appealed his conviction up to the United States Supreme Court. On March 21, 1989, the case of Texas v. Johnson was argued before the Court, and on June 21, 1989, the Court held in Johnson’s favor. Justice Brennan explained, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”

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Attorney William Kunstler, on the left, is photographed here with defendant Gregory Lee Johnson, on the right. Source: Joel Seidenstein

I recommend listening to the oral argument in this case at http://www.oyez.org/cases/1980-1989/1988/1988_88_155. Several of Justice Antonin Scalia’s comments draw laughter.

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On This Date in Legal History

A West Virginia newspaper, the Charleston Daily Mail, published the name of a 14-year-old who was apprehended and taken into custody for allegedly shooting a classmate at school. Reporters were able to determine the name of the student shooter simply by interviewing witnesses, the police, and an attorney at the school. Before the newspaper reported on the incident, another paper and three radio stations had already published the student’s name. Nonetheless, a grand jury indicted the Charleston Daily Mail, its editors and reporters (“collectively referred to here as Daily Mail”) under a West Virginia law that made it a crime to report the name of a child in a juvenile proceeding without prior court approval. Daily Mail petitioned the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to prevent the county officials from acting on the indictment. The appellate court sided with the paper finding the statute violated the First Amendment. The Supreme Court agreed to hear this case, and on March 20, 1979, oral arguments were presented which you can listen to at http://legacy.oyez.org/cases/1970-1979/1978/1978_78_482. On June 26, 1979, the Court affirmed the appellate court’s decision.

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From 1969 to 1986 Chief Justice Warren E. Burger served on the United States Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Burger explained, “At issue is simply the power of a state to punish the truthful publication of an alleged juvenile delinquent’s name lawfully obtained by a newspaper. The asserted state interest cannot justify the statute’s imposition of criminal sanctions on this type of publication.”

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On This Date in Legal History

The case Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld arose after a widower, Steven C. Wiesenfeld (“Wiesenfeld”) was denied his Social Security survivor benefits upon his wife’s death during childbirth. Wiesenfeld opted not to work (outside the home) in order to raise their child. His wife, Paula Polatschek, had been the principal wage earner during their marriage. She was a teacher and always had the maximum Social Security contribution deducted from her paycheck. The Social Security Act had a provision, however, that stated fathers (unlike mothers) were ineligible to collect benefits upon their spouse’s death. So Wiesenfeld sued the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Caspar Weinberger, claiming that the gender-based discrimination was unconstitutional. On January 20, 1975, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (the current senior Supreme Court Justice) represented Wiesenfeld before the United States Supreme Court. You can listen to her argument at http://www.oyez.org/cases/1970-1979/1974/1974_73_1892. On March 19, 1975, the Court agreed that the provision was discriminatory.

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On July 20, 1990, Justice William Brennan retired after serving on the United States Supreme Court for over 33 years.

Justice Brennan explained, “by providing dissimilar treatment for men and women who are…similarly situated, the challenged section violates the [Due Process] Clause.”

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On This Date in Legal History

When a special police officer, Dick Heller, tried to register a handgun in Washington, D.C., his application was denied. A law banned handguns in the home. (A lawful gun in a home had to be disassembled or locked.) Heller sued and his case was appealed up to the Supreme Court. The Court heard oral arguments in the Heller case on March 18, 2008. On June 26, 2008, the Court (in a 5:4 decision) held that the law violated the Second Amendment.

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President Reagan nominated ANTONIN SCALIA for Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and he took his seat September 26, 1986.

Justice Scalia wrote, “In sum, we hold that the District’s ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense. Assuming that Heller is not disqualified from the exercise of the Second Amendment rights, the District must permit him to register his handgun and must issue him a license to carry it in the home.”

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On This Date in Legal History

On March 17, 1777, Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney was born. He was the 11th United States Attorney General and the 5th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He served on the Court for 28 years. He’s probably best remembered for authoring the dreadful Dred Scott v. Sandford decision. In that case the Court found that African-American slaves (and their descendants) were not citizens; consequently, they had no standing to sue (for their freedom) in a U.S. court.

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Chief Justice Roger B. Taney

Justice Taney wrote, “in the opinion of the court, the legislation and the histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument.” Learn more about Chief Justice Taney at https://www.oyez.org/justices/roger_b_taney.

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