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Winter 2017 SCOTUS in the Classroom Cases

Street Law, Inc.

Over 40 years of educating about law, democracy, and human rights

Winter 2017 SCOTUS in the Classroom Cases

Our first SCOTUS in the Classroom case of the 2017-18 school year, The Travel Ban Cases, fell a bit flat when the Supreme Court dismissed it just before the scheduled oral argument. (It’s still a fascinating issue that might come back to the Court; you can read our original summary here.) Luckily, the winter months are full of exciting, engaging cases that are worth teaching! 

This year, we are offering two SCOTUS in the Classroom Winter Cases. We encourage teachers to feature either or both of these cases in class as they are being argued at the Court! They are: 

In Carpenter, the Court will have to decide “whether the warrantless seizure and search of historical cellphone records revealing the location and movements of a cellphone user over the course of 127 days is permitted by the Fourth Amendment.” While investigating a string of robberies, police obtained a suspect’s cell phone location data from his wireless carrier. Under current law, the police do not need a warrant to obtain such information from the wireless company. Carpenter, who was convicted on multiple counts after the police obtained this data, argues that it amounted to a search that violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The government characterizes the data as unprotected, because it does not say anything about the content of someone’s communication and because Carpenter willingly gave the information to a third party (the cellphone company).  

Most teachers are probably more familiar with Masterpiece Cakeshop, a case about a baker in Colorado who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding. The baker, a Christian who refuses to design custom cakes that conflict with his religious belief, argues that his custom cakes are a mode of artistic expression and designing this cake would force him to express an idea he considers objectionable—the celebration of same-sex marriage. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission enforces the Colorado anti-discrimination law that bars businesses that sell to the public from discriminating based on sexual orientation. The Commission argues that this law targets conduct, not speech. The state says that no reasonable observer would believe that the provision of a cake for a wedding communicates the baker’s approval of the marriage. They say that if Masterpiece Cakeshop wants to sell cakes for opposite-sex weddings, they must do the same for same-sex weddings. 

These cases are already generating a lot of news coverage and impassioned opinions from people on all sides. Street Law has successfully mooted Carpenter with teachers several times this fall, and it’s intriguing and accessible to argue. We encourage teachers to teach these cases this winter because they explore fundamental constitutional concepts about privacy, searches, free expression, freedom of religion, and equal protection. Both cases get at some fundamental tension in our system of government: Carpenter weighs people’s right to privacy with the government’s need to conduct criminal investigations and keep people safe. Masterpiece Cakeshop explores the tension between individuals’ right to freedom of expression and conscience and the government’s need to make sure that people are treated fairly, without unlawful discrimination. They present current, controversial issues, and students should have a chance to deeply understand the context and constitutional grounding and to explore the arguments on all sides in a civil conversation. 

The cases will be argued on November 29 and December 5, 2017. Street Law has posted case materials on the SCOTUS in the Classroom program page. Teachers and students are encouraged to hold moot courts of the case the same weeks that the Supreme Court hears arguments, which means students can follow discussion and analysis in the news and listen to or read a transcript of the actual oral arguments at the Court. You can find instructions and handouts for conducting a moot court at SCOTUS in the Classroom.

About SCOTUS in the Classroom: Each year, Street Law selects a few of the most classroom-relevant, student-friendly cases being argued in the U.S. Supreme Court and provides teachers with everything they need to conduct moot courts of each. Past cases are always available on our website!

Learn more

Supreme Court Summer Institute for Teachers

SCOTUS in the Classroom

Teaching for Civic Engagement