The Supreme Court and the Fourteenth Amendment


The Founding Fathers created the Supreme Court in Article III of the Constitution of the United States. The most influential role of the Court, however, was defined later through the appeal process, in cases involving the laws of state and local legislatures and Congress. Landmark cases such as Marbury v. MadisonMcCulloch v. Maryland, and others, which were decided in the first decades of the nineteenth century, established the court’s power of judicial review. This gave the appointed justices the power to declare a law invalid if they found it to be in violation of the Constitution. Judicial review gave the Court the power to interpret the law of the land.

With the surrender of the Confederate states and the end of the Civil War, Congress needed to set the terms under which the seceded states would return to the Union. After four long years of war, Congress also had to address the controversial issues that brought the nation to war in the first place. These included slavery and civil rights. Congress proposed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution to address the issues of freedom and citizenship, and required ratification of the first two for readmission to the Union. Within the first decade following ratification, court cases arose involving individuals demanding their promised civil rights. In the 1870s, the Supreme Court interpreted the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments in the political atmosphere of Reconstruction.


  1. Students will understand the Reconstruction era, including the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment and the appeals that followed.
  2. Students will understand how individuals (free blacks and women) sought to gain access to their rights as citizens.
  3. Students will be able to examine the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
  4. Students will be able to read and analyze four Supreme Court decisions. From these primary documents they will be able to identify how events during Reconstruction affected the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  5. Students will be able to analyze the effects of the Court’s decisions on the rights of all citizens.

Activity One: Inside the Supreme Court

Have each student review how the Supreme Courts works. The following websites provide good information about the role of the Supreme Court. The students should take notes for a follow-up discussion.

Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court Historical Society

Find Law: Supreme Court History

Class discussion: Using the research and notes, discuss and clarify the following:

  • Appellate function
  • Rule of Four
  • Role of the chief justice
  • Majority opinion (decision) and dissent(s)
  • Precedents and impacts of a Supreme Court decision

Activity Two: History: The Supreme Court and the Fourteenth Amendment during Reconstruction

In the years following the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, African Americans struggled to claim the rights promised to them by the Amendment. It is important to fully understand the context of the time in which the Fourteenth Amendment was passed. Students should use their textbooks and the provided websites to gain an understanding of Reconstruction.

Reconstruction (Gilder Lehrman)

Have the class develop a model for analyzing documents and writings about the four cases to be considered in this lesson. They should compile a list of questions to guide them through their reading. Questions should include the following:

  • What were the background facts of the case?
  • What was the Constitutional issue?
  • What were the arguments in the case?
  • What was opinion of the court?
  • Were there dissenting opinions? If so, what were they?
  • What were the impacts of decision—short term and long term?
  • Was precedent involved?

The class should read and discuss the Fourteenth Amendment, which can be found at this site:

The Fourteenth Amendment, Web Guide

The discussion should include:

  • What rights did Congress intend to protect?
  • Who was to be included in the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment?
  • Would the states or federal government guarantee these rights?

Divide the class into four groups. Assign each group one of the following topics for research. Each group should look for background and significant events that influenced the decisions of the Supreme Court.

  • Myra Bradwell case (Bradwell v. Illinois, 1873)
  • Slaughter-House Cases (1873)
  • Susan B. Anthony Case (1873)
  • Virginia Minor Case (Minor v. Happersett, 1875)

Have each group share their information on the assigned topic with the class.

The following websites include the decisions and provide useful information on the assigned topics.



U.S. v. SUSAN B. ANTHONY 24 F.Cas. 829, 1873

MINOR v. HAPPERSETT, 88 U.S. 162, 1874

Activity Three: Mock Appellate Hearing

 Have the class select one of the four appeal hearings. Divide the class into three groups:

  1. Nine Supreme Court justices
  2. Lawyers for the state
  3. Lawyers for the defendant

Using the research, each group should prepare questions and arguments for a mock hearing. The Court should reach a decision

Debrief: The class should discuss the outcome of the mock hearing. The discussion should include similarities, differences, variations in arguments, and impact.

Extension Activity: Essay

To what extent did the Fourteenth Amendment succeed in protecting the equal rights of all citizens in the United States in the decades after the Civil War?