Course code:



IM - Introductory/Intermediate

Class size limit:


Typically offered:

Every other year

 The U.S. Supreme Court has been called “the most powerful court in the world,” and yet the founders regarded the judiciary as “the least dangerous branch” of government, exercising “neither force nor will, but merely judgment” (Alexander Hamilton). This seminar will examine the three branches of the U.S. national government, with its primary focus on the Supreme Court. We will assess the relations among the branches at the beginning of the twenty-first century, asking whether separation of powers and ‘checks and balances’ exist today. We will place an added focus on executive authority (including the increased use of executive orders by the President) and legislative powers (often under conditions of stalemate). Is the Supreme Court supreme in its power? What does it do? Does the Supreme Court “interpret the law”? Does it, in fact, make public policy, by mediating conflicts over values and power at the national level? Was Hamilton “wrong” in his projection of its role in American national government? The Supreme Court in recent years has been at the “storm center” of protracted disputes on segregation, abortion, affirmative action, marriage and partnering, free exercise of religion, and the death penalty. Can the Court resolve these national disputes more easily than other governmental institutions? And, if so, why? Is the Supreme Court resolution of disputes circumventing our “democratic” institutions?

This seminar seeks to improve our understanding of how the Supreme Court functions and to develop our analytic skills about rival claims of liberal or conservative ideologies at work. Main topics include: judicial politics and appointments, jurisdiction, standing, collegial decision-making, adhering to or undermining key precedents, judicial activism and restraint, and the impact of judicial holdings. Evaluation will be based upon class participation, two short papers, and a research-based term paper.



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