The Supreme Court as Bad Teacher

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Since the 1950s, prominent constitutional law professors have often invoked the notion that the Supreme Court acts as an educational institution in American society. On this view, legal scholarship portrays the Supreme Court as a beneficent and inspirational teacher, one who is responsible for imparting unusually enlightened values on the nation. Despite this uplifting analogy’s prevalence within constitutional discourse, two persistent criticisms have unsettled the notion that the Supreme Court in fact teaches any lessons at all through its written opinions. First, critics observe that citizens are generally unaware of even highly salient Supreme Court opinions, and it is hard for people to obtain a lesson from something they do not know. Second, critics note that claims extolling the Court’s educational capacities unfold almost exclusively on an abstract level, rendering it virtually impossible to determine whether anyone has absorbed the Court’s ostensible lessons and how that absorption occurred.

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