Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

When Should the Courts Act?

Judicial Activism vs. Judicial Restraint 

Kristen Sublett, Susan McHale, Milton Bowens, Ann Kennedy, Alan Page, Jessie Potters | Published: May 31st, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th
  • Subject Subject Social Studies
  • Course Course U.S. Government
  • Time Frame Time Frame 2-3 class period(s)
  • Duration More 150 minutes


Students will evaluate two key Supreme Court cases to create a definition of judicial activism and judicial restraint. Students will then use their definitions to analyze other Supreme Court cases to determine if they are judicial activism or judicial restraint.

Essential Question(s)

What should be the criteria for determining judicial activism?



Students will examine a political cartoon and answer questions in a class discussion.


Students will evaluate two Supreme Court cases to create definitions of judicial activism and judicial restraint.


Students will use their definitions to determine if other Supreme Court cases are examples of judicial activism or judicial restraint.


Students will select a case example that best exemplifies judicial activism and a case that best exemplifies judicial restraint and defend their answers.


The handouts from the explain section and the posters from the extend section can serve as evaluations. There are 2 additional options listed in in the detailed portion of this section.


  • Teacher PowerPoint Slides

  • Frayer Model Handout

  • Judiciary Branch Political Cartoon

  • Judicial Activism/Restraint Supreme Court Case Examples Handout


Think Pair Share Strategy-- Students view a political cartoon about the Judiciary (included in attachments and on PowerPoint Slide 2). The class will view a political cartoon and participate in a think, pair, share activity.. First, individually have students write down on notebook paper, what the answer to the questions below are (Think). Show power slide 2.

Questions for the political cartoon:

  1. Who or what do each of the buildings in the cartoon represent?

  2. How do these groups interact with each other?

  3. What does it mean when the third building says, "We can fix that!" Is that their role?

Second, have students pair with an assigned partner and discuss their answers. Once pairs have discussed the cartoon, have pairs share their answers as a general class discussion.

Transition students to the Explore activity by explaining that the students are going to look at the range of powers the courts really do have.


Place the two key terms --judicial activism and judicial restraint--on the board and explain that these terms represent the span or range of powers of the Supreme Court.

Pose the essential question: What is the difference between judicial activism or judicial restraint? (PowerPoint slide 3)

Ask students what the word "activism" or "activist" means. The ask students what the word "restraint" or "to restrain" means. Tell students that the word judicial refers to the court system. Pass out Handout 1 (included in attachments) over the two court cases to the student pairs. Ask pairs to determine which court case is judicial activism and which case is judicial restraint.

Have pairs discuss the cases and determine which is judicial restraint and which is judicial activism. They should express their reasoning for their choices. Call on as many pairs as possible.

On the board, ask students now to define what judicial activism and judicial restraint mean. Share their answers on the board until a working definition of each are completed.

Optional--Return to and show the original political cartoon again (Powerpoint slide 4) where the Supreme Court says, "We can fix that". Ask students if that statement would be leaning more toward Judicial Activism or Judicial Restraint. (There is no right or wrong answer here--only opinion.) Have students explain their reasoning.


Frayer Model Strategy-- Pass out the Frayer Model handout (Handout 2, printed front and back on one sheet) to all students. Show powerpoint slide 5. On one side, it says Judicial Restraint and the other Judicial Activism. Leave the definitions of Judicial Restraint and Judicial Activism on the board.

Using their American government textbooks, student pairs are to look at Supreme Court cases and add them to their Frayer Model. They may wish to add a phrase or two of what each is about so they can discuss them later for the Extend activity. They should find at least 3 Supreme Court case examples for each Frayer Model. Student pairs should also discuss and write down pros and cons of Judicial Restraint and Judicial Activism on their Frayer Models.

If students do not have access to a textbook for this activity, or find it hard to use their textbooks, students can use the following websites to help them:




Place several pieces of chart paper on the walls. Label two pieces Judicial Activism and two pieces Judicial Restraint. Have student pairs combine with another pair. The group of four are to choose one Supreme Court case from their Frayer Model examples that best demonstrates both Judicial Activism and Judicial Restraint each.

Allow 10 minutes for discussion. Calling on 1 group at a time, ask them to write down their example for restraint and activism on the corresponding posters and explain to their classmates why they chose the cases they did.


Both Handout 1 and the Frayer Model handout can serve as assessments for this lesson. The following are also optional activities to add as evaluations of what students have learned.

Option 1: 3-2-1 Strategy demonstrates their understanding of this lesson. Pose the question: When should the courts use judicial activism or judicial restraint? (Powerpoint slide 6 )Have students individually write down the following on a sheet of notebook paper. They may need to refer back to their Frayer Model to help compose their answers.

  1. 3 reasons or circumstances for the courts to practice Judicial Activism

  2. 2 circumstances or reasons for the courts to practice judicial restraint

  3. 1 court case in which you agreed with the decision of the Supreme Court

Option 2: Show the picture of the Lady with the scales of justice (powerpoint slide 7 ) . Explain that the lady represents the law. That the law should be blind to bias or special interests and the the scales represent justice for all. Point out that the scales are balanced so that fairness is emphasized. Ask students to create their own symbol/image for either Judicial Restraint or Judicial Activism.