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Marbury v. Madison

Students examine documents establishing the principal of judicial review in 1803.

John Marshall, U. of Chicago. William E. Barton Collection of Lincolniana

During the early years of the American republic, the system of checks and balances between the three branches of the federal government was tested and solidified. This lesson examines the history behind the expansion of the Supreme Court's role and the principal of judicial review that came from the case of Marbury v. Madison in 1803.

For teachers, one of the helpful things this website provides is secondary background reading and questions at three different ability levels. The easiest level provides help with vocabulary and may be suitable for English language learners.

An engaging political cartoon analysis exercise is also included. The cartoon illustrates the balance of powers between the three branches of government, equating the Supreme Court to referees in a football game.

In addition, excerpts of the most significant passages and other related texts are provided for students to read and interpret. We think teachers will appreciate the flexibility in the recommended sequence of activities. Activities can be tailored to how much time you have to teach about this important topic.


A variety of teaching materials about the U.S. judicial system and the Supreme Court are presented in the Landmark cases series co-produced by Street Law and the Supreme Court Historical Society.

Teachinghistory.org Lesson Plan Rubric
Field Criteria Comments
Historical Content Is historically accurate?

Materials used in the lesson have been well researched. Content and materials on the site are very thorough.

Includes historical background?

Background information and questions are available for students at three different reading levels.

Requires students to read and write?

Lesson focuses on reading and answering questions. No large, essay-style question for student writing is included, but students construct brief responses to questions about documents they have read.

Analytic Thinking Requires students to analyze or construct interpretations using evidence

Students analyze documents to answer questions about who has the power to declare laws unconstitutional. The political cartoon analysis exercise centers on analytic thinking.

Requires close reading and attention to source information?

Emphasis on reading primary sources. Source and perspective understanding are required when considering (for example) Thomas Jefferson's adverse reaction to the decision.

Scaffolding Is appropriate for stated audience?

This lesson is appropriate for a secondary audience, though this is not specifically stated on the site. Teachers may decide the activities and resources are appropriate for an eighth-grade class.

Includes materials and strategies for scaffolding and supporting student thinking?

In addition to the leveled background reading, an opening scenario, a diagram of the case, and excerpts from primary documents also work to support student understanding. Questions included with the sources require varied levels of understanding ranging from basic to quite sophisticated.

Lesson Structure Includes assessment criteria and strategies that focus on historical understanding?

Activities do not include assessment strategies other than questions that a teacher could assign to check for student understanding.

Defines clear learning goals and progresses logically?

No learning objectives are explicitly stated; however, the lesson activities progress logically.

Includes clear directions and is realistic in normal classroom settings?

The lesson provides adequate instructions for implementation.