Government Topic 5 Summary: Famous U.S. Supreme Court Decisions

The Supreme Court of the United States has handed down more than 30,000 decisions in its 230-year history. The records of these are kept in close to 600 bound volumes of United States Reports housed in the Library of Congress. Many of these decisions altered the course of American history and reshaped the nature of our national society and culture. These momentous changes were not the result of new laws or new enforcement of those laws, as those are the duties of the other two branches of government. The high court’s duty is to interpret the law and redirect the country to its own Constitutional principles.

The 1803 Marbury v. Madison decision resolved a dispute over Cabinet appointments between outgoing President John Adams and incoming President Thomas Jefferson. When Congress attempted to resolve the argument by passing a new law, the John Marshall Court declared the law unconstitutional and affirmed the independence of the Judicial Branch of the government. In the 1819 McCulloch v. Maryland decision, a state’s attempt to restrict the Bank of the United States was struck down as an interference into the balance of power between federal and state governments.

The civil rights of African Americans became a major legal issue in the years leading up to and following the American Civil War. In the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford case, slave-owning Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared that slaves were property and “Negroes” could not be citizens of the United States. His decision enraged the abolitionist movement and was a major factor leading to the outbreak of hostilities between North and South in 1861.

The so-called “Reconstruction” Amendments added to the Constitution after Union victory in the war ended slavery and overrode the Dred Scott decision by recognizing the citizenship of all persons born in the U.S. and granting the right to vote regardless of race. The war did not resolve issues of racial discrimination, however, and the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision legalized segregation throughout the nation, particularly in the South. African Americans would have to take their struggle for freedom and justice to the courts and the streets for the next fifty years.

Other decisions of the late 19th century limited the power of monopoly and upheld the rights of women in the workplace. With the outbreak of World War II, however, the issue of racial discrimination reappeared, this time against Americans of Japanese ancestry who were confined in wartime “Relocation Centers” that amounted to concentration camps. The Korematsu v. United States decision of 1944 upheld the government’s right to suspend civil rights in time of war, much as the Schenck v. United States decision of 1919 had done with the issue of freedom of speech during the First World War. Japanese Americans had to wait another forty years to receive an official apology from the government.

Americans of all backgrounds, including Japanese Americans, had helped win Allied victory over fascism in World War II and expected commensurate treatment when they returned home. An important legal victory was achieved in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of the Earl Warren Court in 1954, which ordered the desegregation of public schools. Brown also overturned the legalized segregation of the Plessy decision and helped to inspire the civil rights campaigns led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1965 Congress had outlawed discrimination in public life and abolished poll taxes with the 24th Amendment.

Other civil rights issues related to due process came to the Warren Court’s attention. Hernandez v. Texas (1954) ruled that Mexican Americans had legal protection against discrimination under the 14th Amendment. Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) asserted a defendant’s right to an attorney, New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) defended freedom of speech, and Miranda v. Arizona (1966) required law enforcement officers to inform suspects of their rights. Loving v. Virginia (1967) upheld the rights of interracial couples.

More marginalized groups of Americans joined the civil rights struggle in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Mexican Americans, Native Americans, LGBTQ Americans, and women. The Warren Burger Court defended a woman’s right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973), a decision that continues to provoke debate between “pro-choice” groups defending the civil rights of the mother and “pro-life” groups voicing support for the unborn child. The Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision of 1978 allowed universities to consider race as a factor in admissions but prohibited discriminatory racial quotas.

The political turmoil of the Vietnam War and Watergate led to the United States v. Nixon decision of 1974, which prohibited the President of the United States from withholding evidence in a criminal investigation. The disputed Presidential election of 2000 was resolved in the Bush v. Gore decision which ended the counting in Florida and guaranteed a Republican victory. This was the only time in American history when the Judicial Branch became directly involved in a Presidential election.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans and their allies have won several important victories before the 21st century Supreme Court. The 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision struck down offensive “sodomy” laws that intruded on private life, United States v. Windsor (2013) protected the federal benefits of same-sex couples, and the Obergefell v. Hodges decision of 2015 finally abolished state restrictions on same-sex marriage across the country. The struggle for LGBTQ civil rights continues as the issue of “gender-neutral” identification and accommodation attracts more public debate.

Other issues brought before the Court over the decades have included prayer in public schools, treatment of the American flag, polygamy, use of public lands, patents and copyrights, and the content of student newspapers. The Supreme Court has been and will continue to be an active participant in the unfolding drama of American history. The Constitution’s general guidelines will always remain open to interpretation in specific circumstances. It is the ongoing task of the Judicial Branch to interpret the law to the best of its ability and strive for justice in American society.


  1. Which historic decision of the U.S. Supreme Court has most impacted your life? Explain.
  2. Many Supreme Court decisions have sparked intense debate in Congress and national elections. Do you think the Supreme Court has ruled fairly in most of its decisions? Why or why not?
  3. What legal issues in American life remain unresolved? What role should the Supreme Court play in resolving them?

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Government Topic 4 Summary: Judicial Branch

Article III of the Constitution, which establishes the Judicial Branch of the federal government, is much shorter than Articles I and II. This leaves much more to interpretation in the branch of the government most responsible for interpreting the laws of the land. Article III states that “the judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme court” as well as “inferior” (federal district and appellate) courts which Congress may establish. But despite its brevity, Article III and the branch of government it created remain as important and vital to the structure of the national government as the Congress and the Presidency.

The duties of the Judicial Branch include hearing and deciding cases that involve more than one state or between citizens of different states, cases involving trade or legal disputes on the high seas, and any legal controversy “to which the United States shall be a party.” The high court also has jurisdiction over any case involving diplomatic officials of the United States. Federal district courts handle cases involving federal law, and federal appellate courts deal with cases unresolved at the state or municipal level. Only 80 or so cases are heard by the Supreme Court out of the nearly 8,000 presented to it each year.

Another important duty of the federal courts is that of judicial review. This allows the Judicial Branch to resolve disputes between and within the other two branches of the government. This principle was established in the 1803 decision of Marbury v. Madison in which Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that the federal courts could invalidate any law that violated the Constitution. The Marbury case strengthened the power of the Judicial Branch and ensured that political rivalries and controversies at the local, state, or federal levels would not supersede or override the authority of the U.S. Constitution.

The high court is also responsible for presiding over Senate trials for federal officials (including Supreme Court Justices) impeached in the House of Representatives for treason, bribery, or “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Only treason is defined by the language of Article III of the Constitution as “levying war against the United States” or giving “aid and comfort” to enemies of the nation. Article I states that the “Chief Justice” of the Supreme Court presides over such trials. This is the only time in the original text of the Constitution that the position of Chief Justice is mentioned.

The structure of the Supreme Court has evolved over the course of American history, beginning with the Judiciary Act of 1789. This allowed for a Supreme Court of one Chief Justice and five Associate Justices. President George Washington appointed New York attorney John Jay, one of the signatories of the 1783 Treaty of Paris and principal authors of The Federalist Papers, as the first Chief Justice of the United States.

Over the course of his Presidency, Washington appointed 38 federal judges to fill both the Supreme Court and the federal appellate and district courts. The growth of the country expanded the federal court system as well. As of 2019, there are nearly 900 federal judges, including the justices of the Supreme Court, the number of which was increased from six to nine in 1869.

The Constitution specifies neither the qualifications nor the term of office for federal judges. Generally speaking, those appointed and confirmed tend to be respected attorneys, legal scholars, or state and local judges, and their term continues “during good behavior.” This means that they can serve for life, until their terms end with death, resignation, retirement, or removal from office by conviction of articles of impeachment in the Senate. Many have served for decades. The longest term so far was that of Justice William O. Douglas, appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, who remained on the Court for nearly 37 years until his retirement in 1975.

Article III does not limit court appointments to Americans of any particular background. Until the appointment of prominent NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967, all the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court were white. They were all men until the appointment of Arizona state judge Sandra Day O’Connor by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. The current U.S. Supreme Court has both men and women of varied political, cultural, and religious backgrounds.

Appointing a justice to the Supreme Court can be one of the most enduring legacies for a sitting U.S. President, because that justice could remain on the high court for years or even decades after that President leaves office. Every President except for William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, and Jimmy Carter has appointed justices to the Supreme Court, and all have made appointments to the lower courts. In recent years, Presidents Reagan and Clinton made the largest number of appointments.

Because of the separation of powers created by the Constitution, former U.S. Presidents may also serve in the other two branches of the federal government. Former President John Quincy Adams represented his home state of Massachusetts as a U.S. Congressman for nearly 17 years until his death in 1848. William Howard Taft is the only former head of the Executive Branch to later lead the Judicial Branch. Eight years after Taft left the White House in 1913, President Warren G. Harding nominated him to be the 10th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Taft remained in this position until his death in 1930.

Most appointees are confirmed by the Senate with relative ease, but there have been high profile confirmation hearings in recent years, such as when Judge Clarence Thomas was confirmed despite widely-broadcast accusations of sexual harassment in 1991. Others have been denied confirmation, such as President Reagan’s controversial nominee Robert Bork in 1987.

President Barack Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016, but political gridlock in Washington prevented Garland from getting a hearing on Capitol Hill. The number of justices remained at eight for several months until the Republican-led Senate managed to confirm President Donald Trump’s conservative nominee Neil Gorsuch with a simple majority. This was accomplished by invoking the so-called “nuclear option,” which overrode the traditional two-thirds vote.

The Supreme Court has weighed in on many important legal issues in American history, including civil rights, labor disputes, and the stewardship of federal lands. Its duty is to remain above political debate and interpret the Constitution impartially to the best of its ability. Accusations of partisan “activism” leveled by both major parties against nominees from the other side have remained a part of American politics from the beginning. Current Chief Justice John Roberts articulated the true purpose of the Judicial Branch when he commented recently that “we do not serve one party or one interest; we serve one nation.”


  1. Do you think there should be term limits on the federal judiciary? Why or why not?
  2. What criteria would you choose in selecting a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court?
  3. Why is there so much more coverage in the media of the White House and the Congress than there is of the Supreme Court? How could the general public become more educated on the important work of the Judicial Branch?

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Government Topic 3 Summary: Executive Branch

George Washington rejected both monarchy and the exalted title of “Highness” proposed by many when he was elected the first President of the United States in 1788. “Mr. President” was sufficient for the hero of the American Revolution. The Constitution was clear that the President would lead just one of three branches of equal power and stature in the new government. Washington encouraged his fellow founders to leave the past behind and embrace a new vibrant government of the people.

The President must be at least 35 years of age and a native-born American citizen. Electors from each state (prominent officials and party leaders known as the Electoral College) grant all their votes to the winner of the popular vote in the Presidential election in their state. Only a simple majority at the polls is required, which is why there have been a few instances in U.S. history when the winner of the Electoral College was not the winner of the national popular vote. Prominent examples include Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, George W. Bush in 2000, and Donald Trump in 2016.

In case of a disputed result in the Electoral College, the winner of the Presidential election may be decided by Congress, as was the case with Thomas Jefferson in 1800 and John Quincy Adams in 1824. The Supreme Court was brought in to end the disputed counting in the 2000 election and guarantee a Bush victory. According to the 12th Amendment, the President and Vice President run and are elected as a team and must therefore come from different states.

The President is elected to a four year term and can run only for a second consecutive term according to the 22nd Amendment. Before the Amendment’s ratification in 1951, only Grover Cleveland had served two non-consecutive terms and only Franklin D. Roosevelt had served more than two terms. The 25th Amendment created an order of succession in the event of the President’s removal from office. The Vice President is first in line to assume the office, followed by the Speaker of the House and several members of the President’s Cabinet.

The Constitution gave the President the right to appoint a Cabinet of advisors but did not specify the nature or number of those positions. George Washington began with four in 1789: Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Knox as Secretary of War, and Edmund Randolph as Attorney General. As the size and power of the government expanded over the course of U.S. history, the number of Cabinet members grew with it.

As of 2019 the Presidential Cabinet now includes fifteen members as well as several other Cabinet-level advisors. Cabinet members are appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, as are justices of the Supreme Court and diplomatic officers. Treaties and trade agreements with foreign countries are likewise initiated by the President and confirmed by Congress.

As the head of the Executive Branch of government, the President is responsible for the enforcement of national laws. The office of the Attorney General is considered the highest law enforcement agency in the country. Other federal law enforcement agencies include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), the Secret Service, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Including members of these agencies, federal Cabinet departments, and the military, there are more than four million Americans employed in the Executive Branch, far more than in the other two branches of government combined.

The President is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of the United States and works with an appointed Joint Chiefs of Staff from the various branches of the military. The power to formally declare war rests with Congress, but the President may unilaterally deploy U.S. forces for up to 60 days if Congress is given 48 hours notice. The President cannot be a current member of the armed forces. Many Presidents such as Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump never served in uniform, and famous war heroes such as Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight Eisenhower had to retire before they could occupy the White House.

The President may choose to sign or veto bills presented by Congress, but in the case of veto must give reasons for rejecting the bill. Each bill must be accepted or rejected in its entirety. Congress may override a Presidential veto with a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate. The President must also present a budget to Congress each year and deliver a State of the Union address in January.

Official records of each Presidency are kept in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Each of the fourteen most recent Presidents from Herbert Hoover to Barack Obama has his own Presidential library and museum. I visited the JFK Library in Boston in 1983 when I was a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts campus directly next door. I also went to the Eisenhower, Truman, and Carter Libraries in 1992, the Nixon Library in 2005, and the Reagan Library in 2009. They are all fascinating exhibits to visit.

Many Presidents wait until the final days of their term to exercise their power to pardon persons convicted of federal crimes. This pattern and the nature of the crimes pardoned have attracted much criticism from the opposing party and the general public. Presidents may be impeached by Congress for treason, bribery, and other high crimes, but impeachment in the House must be followed by a two-thirds conviction in the Senate for the President to be removed from office. This has not happened yet in American history, although Andrew Johnson’s Presidency was saved by a single vote in the Senate in 1868.

Richard M. Nixon is the only sitting President to resign his office, in August 1974 after the Watergate scandal discredited his Administration. Nixon appointed Vice President Gerald Ford to succeed him in office. Ford had been previously appointed to succeed disgraced Vice President Spiro Agnew, making Gerald Ford the only man in U.S. history to become both President and Vice President without winning an election.

The Constitution does not limit the office of the President to a particular race, gender, or religion. All forty-five U.S. Presidents thus far have been men, and all but John F. Kennedy have been Protestant Christians. All but Barack Obama have been white. Democrat Hillary Clinton became the first woman to be nominated by a major party in 2016 and won the popular vote but narrowly lost to Republican Donald Trump in the Electoral College. The 2020 race has already attracted a wide variety of candidates and it is only a matter of time before Americans of all backgrounds will have the opportunity to assume the highest office in the land.


  1. Who is your favorite U.S. President? Why?
  2. Is the Electoral College still an effective method of electing the President? Why or why not?
  3. The powers of the Presidency have grown over the course of U.S. history. Do you think the President is still accountable to the American people? Why or why not?

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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Government Topic 2 Summary: Legislative Branch

Article I of the Constitution lays out the structure and duties of the Congress, the national lawmaking branch of the United States government. Congress is a bicameral, or two-house legislature, with 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 100 in the Senate. Each of the fifty states is represented by two Senators in the Senate and by a number in the House determined by state population.

As of 2019, California had the largest House delegation with 53 representatives. Several states such as Montana and Alaska have a single member in the House. Puerto Rico, Guam, and other U.S. territories as well as the District of Columbia have resident commissioners or non-voting delegates, who may participate and vote in committee but may not vote on the floor with state representatives.

Members of the House of Representatives must be U.S. citizens (either native-born or naturalized) at least 25 years of age, and are elected to two-year terms. Senators must be at least 30 years of age and are elected to six-year terms. There are no federal term limits in Congress, so some members have historically served for decades if they are repeatedly reelected. Proceedings of both houses of Congress are available to the public in the Congressional Record housed in the Library of Congress.

Congress has the “power of the purse” in that all federal spending must be approved by them, including the President’s annual budget and spending for the Pentagon. All new laws must begin in Congress and pass committee approval before being sent to the President’s desk for signature or veto. Other Congressional powers and duties include the declaration of war (which has only been formally used five times in U.S. history – 1812 against England, 1846 against Mexico, 1898 against Spain, 1917 against Germany, and 1941 against Japan), the maintenance of postal roads, the naturalization of citizens, the levying and collection of taxes and tariffs, and the issuing of patents, copyrights, and trademarks.

Impeachment of the President or Supreme Court justices for treason, bribery, or other high crimes begins in the House and goes to trial in the Senate, where a two-thirds majority must be secured for conviction and removal from office. Only two Presidents (Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998) and one Justice (Samuel Chase in 1804) have been formally impeached, but all three were acquitted in the Senate. President Richard M. Nixon resigned from office in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal before articles of impeachment could reach a vote. Representatives and Senators may also face censure or even expulsion from their fellow members if their conduct is deemed “unbecoming” of their office.

Until the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913 allowed for the direct election of U.S. Senators, only members of the House of Representatives were elected directly by popular vote. This and the relatively short term in office made the House the branch of government most directly accountable to the people. Most bills begin the House and go to the Senate for revision and review, but the opposite is also part of the legislative process.

The Vice President of the United States is also the President of the Senate and can cast a vote there in the event of a tie. The majority party in the House elects a Speaker who is also second in line to assume the office of President if the serving President and Vice President are removed from office by death, disability, or conviction of impeachment articles. Both major parties select their own majority or minority leaders in both the House and Senate. Debate can be prolonged indefinitely by a filibuster, unless ended by a majority vote of members known as cloture.

The Senate has the power to confirm or deny diplomatic and judicial appointments from the President, including appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court. Congressional powers are divided into general or stated powers such as the appropriation of funds and the declaration of war, enumerated powers such as regulating commerce and raising armed forces, and implied powers such as regulating monopoly and trade between states. The Constitution does not dictate specific policy on these matters and thus leaves the details of how to execute Congressional powers to each successive collection of members. The current debates over national health care and immigration are prominent examples of this principle.

Members of Congress maintain offices in both their home districts and in Washington, D.C., and must travel frequently to raise funds and stay in touch with the issues that matter to their constituents. Each has a staff that handles correspondence, social media, fundraising, scheduling, and issuing position statements to the press. Campaign financing has generated much debate over the years and tension between various interest groups vying for Congressional influence remains a key feature of national political life.

There has been vociferous outcry in recent years about Congressional “gridlock” and the inability of the two major parties to work together to effective discharge their duties. Criticism of Congress is a hallmark of American politics and was encouraged by the Federalist framers who wrote the Constitution and advocated for its ratification. Issues such as campaign finance reform, transparency, corruption, and personal scandal will continue to challenge members of Congress to strive for integrity and voters to remain active in the electoral process. Such is the nature of the oldest living representative government on earth.


  1. What are the most important duties of Congress? Is the current Congress effectively discharging those duties? Explain.
  2. Is the election process in America today effective in your opinion? What reforms are needed to improve it?
  3. What would you focus on if you were elected to Congress?

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Happy Martin Luther King Day 2019!

Enjoy your upcoming three-day holiday weekend!

Happy birthday Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! Dr. King would have been 90 years old today. His birthday will be observed as a national holiday this Monday, January 21. I grew up in the 1960s listening to recordings of his speeches and sermons and visited his childhood home in Atlanta in 1992. A visit to the King Center and Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Park there is well worth your time and effort. May we all continue to pursue his dream of peace and justice and build a better nation and world.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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Government Topic 1 Summary: U.S. Constitution

The American government was founded on the idea of compromise. Sectional divisions between the northern and southern colonies over slavery and representation demanded it, and the Enlightenment ideas coming over from Europe in the writings of Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau reinforced it. Once monarchy had been removed from America, no single man or group would ever be in charge again. This new United States government would be one of teamwork.

This, at least, was the theory expounded by Virginian James Madison, one of the chief architects of the new Constitution. Madison warned against the dangers of a “tyrannical majority” and wanted the new government to foster and protect a “multiplicity of faction.” The more interest groups and political opinions, the better. No one group of Americans should be allowed to replace the absolute power of a European king.

To this end, three branches of government were established: a legislative branch with a Senate and House of Representatives elected by the people; an executive branch led by an elected President; and a judicial branch presided over by a Supreme Court of justices appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The duty of the legislative arm would be to make laws, the executive to enforce them, and the judicial to serve as the final arbiter of interpretation.

Each branch would be held in check by the others. Presidents and Supreme Court justices would face impeachment and possible removal from office by Congress if they violated the public trust through bribery, treason, or other high crimes. The President could choose to sign or veto laws presented to him by Congress, and the Supreme Court would hold the power to determine the constitutionality of those laws. Congress could censure its own members and the President could hire and fire his own Cabinet and staff. The Senate would hold the power to confirm or deny Presidential judicial and diplomatic appointments.

All of this would be accountable to the American people through the power of the ballot. Most states initially limited the franchise to white male native-born property owners age 21 or older. Three-fifths of the slave population of each state would be counted for purposes of representation, but the slaves remained property and were denied the rights of citizens. At first only members of the House of Representatives were elected by popular vote; the President would be chosen by state electors and Senators by state legislatures. The struggle to expand the franchise and reform the election process would continue throughout the course of U.S. history.

The Constitution was presented in seven Articles to the thirteen states for ratification in the fall of 1787. Article I detailed the qualifications and duties of the Congress, Article II the President, and Article III the Supreme Court. Article IV dealt with the relationships between the states themselves and between them and the federal government. Article V outlined the process of amending the Constitution, Article VI established the Constitution as the supreme law of the land, and Article VII explained the process of ratification.

Nine of the original thirteen states were required for ratification, which was accomplished by the end of 1788. The remaining four states were brought on board by the addition of the first ten Amendments to the Constitution, known popularly as the “Bill of Rights.” These outlined personal freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion, press, property, and due process that would be regarded as inviolable by the federal government. By 1791 the Constitution with the Bill of Rights had been ratified by all thirteen states and new states could now be admitted to the Union.

In time, seventeen more Amendments were added to the Constitution. Amendment XI protected the states from foreign litigation and Amendment XII linked the election of the Vice President to that of the President. In the aftermath of Union victory in the Civil War, Amendment XIII abolished slavery in the United States, Amendment XIV granted citizenship to all native-born Americans regardless of race, and Amendment XV removed race or color as an impediment to the franchise.

The Progressive movement of the early 20th century led to more change. Amendment XVI created a national income tax, Amendment XVII allowed for the direct election of Senators, Amendment XVIII prohibited the sale and manufacture of alcoholic beverages, and Amendment XIX granted women the right to vote. Amendment XX moved up the inauguration of the President from March 4 to January 20. The failure of Congress to enforce Prohibition led to its repeal with Amendment XXI in 1933.

Congress waited until after the death of four-term President Franklin D. Roosevelt to pass Amendment XXII, which limited the Presidency to two consecutive terms. The Civil Rights Movement led to the inclusion of the District of Columbia in the Electoral College in Amendment XXIII and the end of poll taxes in Amendment XXIV. Amendment XXV specified a Presidential order of succession after Dwight D. Eisenhower was partially disabled by a heart attack. Amendment XXVI lowered the voting age to 18 and Amendment XXVII deferred changes in Congressional compensation until the next election.

Many other changes have been proposed to the Constitution over the course of American history, but only these 27 have been approved and ratified. The carefully crafted design of the Constitution and its balanced government has managed to endure the challenges of sectional strife, civil war, westward expansion, large scale immigration and industrialization, two world wars and the Great Depression, civil rights struggles, and globalization. The American Constitution still maintains the oldest democratic government on earth. Successive generations of Americans are left with the sacred duty of interpreting its meaning for an ever changing nation and world.


  1. Thomas Jefferson once said that the Constitution should be discarded and rewritten for each successive generation. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  2. Can you think of other Amendments that should be added to the Constitution? Explain.
  3. What effects has the Constitution had on the other governments of the modern world? Is the American government truly a positive role model for others? Why or why not?

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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Economics Topic 11 Summary: Financial Literacy

Promoting reading literacy has always been a primary goal of both public and private education. An emphasis on financial literacy has been more recent. This has to do with the ability to make sense of money – how to earn it, spend it, save it, and invest it. Those who learn to understand and manage money achieve wealth and success at a faster pace than those who do not. Money is a language, and financial literacy is its own kind of language art.

My prior blog entries on Everyday Economics and Setting Financial Goals addressed related topics such as creating and maintaining a personal budget, managing debt, and saving and investing strategies. Financial literacy includes all of these as well as a basic understanding of insurance, real estate, college expenses, and retirement. Making sense of these subjects is key to staying on top of finances and achieving life goals.

The insurance industry alone takes in more than a trillion dollars every year in premiums, or payments made to maintain personal and business policies. Premium amounts are calculated by financial specialists called actuaries who estimate risk based on past statistics and projected future loss. Insurance policies are issued and serviced by state licensed agents and can be maintained by policyholders online or over the phone.

Health insurance has been the subject of intense political debate in recent decades and remains unresolved at the national level. Some states are moving toward a single payer system, which would offer basic insurance to every resident of that state, but most state governments still support a largely privately-managed insurance industry with some stipends offered to low-income or disabled citizens. The Affordable Care Act passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in 2010 created a government-sponsored online insurance “marketplace” in all the states but continues to face strong opposition from conservative politicians and some large insurance companies.

Automobile insurance is required for all licensed drivers and registered vehicles and includes protection against vehicle damage, theft, vandalism, and personal injury. The highest premiums are paid by drivers under age 25 and over age 70 and for vehicles registered in high density urban areas. Proof of insurance and vehicle registration is required for all drivers of that vehicle and must be presented at the request of a law enforcement officer.

Traffic violations and accidents where you are at fault will raise your insurance rates, unless you attend traffic school to have the points removed from your record. A good driving record can reduce rates, and some insurance companies offer multi-vehicle discounts. Business vehicles have separate policies and can be tax deductible along with other business expenses. Updated anti-theft devices and other safety features can also lower monthly premiums.

Homeowners insurance covers the home itself against fire, water damage, theft, and other damages. Flood and earthquake coverage is usually extra. Renters policies offer similar coverage to tenants and typically come at a lower monthly premium than homeowners. Special insurance policies can be issued to cover classic cars, antiques, firearms, jewelry, and other expensive heirlooms. Doctors, attorneys, and many other professionals and business owners also carry liability policies to insure against litigation.

The value of real estate fluctuates with the state of the market and this is reflected in both insurance premiums and sale prices. County and municipal property taxes are calculated by a public assessor’s office based on the current value of the land and edifices. Rents rise and fall based on these values as well as seasonal volume and location. Rental agreements vary between month-to-month contracts or year-long leases. Subleases, where the tenant rents the property to someone else, are rare. The tenant is usually responsible for paying most of the monthly utilities, and the landlord responsible for the cost of repairs on the property.

Homes and businesses can be sold by owner or by a licensed agent or broker. The listed price can be negotiated before entering escrow, the period between a signed buyer’s offer and the final payment to the seller. A portion of the down payment known as earnest money is usually deposited in a certified escrow account and is returned if the deal falls through because the buyer is displeased with the official inspection of the property or is unable to secure a mortgage loan. The seller may be entitled to keep the earnest money if the buyer fails to complete time-limited conditions of the contract known as contingencies.

The cost of college has arisen dramatically in the last thirty years. Those students who do not come from wealthy families usually finance their schooling through scholarships, loans, and part-time jobs. There are many different scholarship programs based on academic performance, background, financial need, or other special qualifications. Check with your school counselor or career center for the programs available to you. It is worth the effort to apply to as many as programs as possible.

Student loans are issued through government-managed bank programs and usually carry a lower monthly payment and interest rate, payable beginning a few months after graduation. Many careers in government service will also defer loan payments for a time. Most schools also offer work-study programs or other on-campus jobs to help defray costs. Living off campus with roommates can save expenses while giving you more economic independence and access to more work in the community.

Retirement is not something most people under 40 think much about, but rising costs of living and underemployment have compelled people of all ages and circumstances to pay more attention to it. Public retirement pensions are offered by most states to long-term teachers, police officers, firefighters, and government officials, but their strength and longevity depend on the support of lawmakers and the general public at the polling booth.

Most private companies offer some kind of retirement investment program, but many are comprised entirely of voluntary contributions from the employee. Personal savings and investments will always yield more dependable results, but they require discipline and patience to maintain for many years. The federal Social Security program still pays a monthly stipend to Americans over 65, but shares the same dependence as state pensions on public policy.

The marketplace can be a formidable arena to enter with limited resources, but understanding financial literacy gives you the knowledge and vocabulary you need to begin active participation there. Remember that money always goes out easier than it comes in. Save more and spend less. Invest and drive carefully, take care of your health and home, and keep updating your financial goals. Careful short term planning yields better long term results.


  1. Do you support the idea of a single payer health care system? Why or why not?
  2. How do you plan to pay for college?
  3. What kind of time and money do you want to have in retirement? How will you plan to achieve those goals?

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

Economics Topic 10 Summary: Job-Seeking Strategies

Except for the few who inherit a family fortune or business, most of us need to eventually find a meaningful source of regular income. This is never easy, particularly in a lean marketplace. Yet find it we must if we are to maintain our economic independence and pursue our financial goals. The whole process of getting a job has changed dramatically over the course of my lifetime, along with everything else. The paper-heavy, corded telephone, mimeographed world of the late 20th century has been replaced by the digital community of the 21st. Job-seeking strategies must therefore adapt to this new environment.

As with finances, the first step in finding the job you want is to decide what that job is and make a plan to get it. There are many different kinds of jobs. Generally speaking, customer service positions in retail, restaurants, custodial, and the like can be obtained while you are still in high school or college. These jobs pay by the hour and usually start at the state mandated minimum wage. When you move up into the trades in construction, utilities, mining, and factory work, the hourly pay is better but union dues are usually required, as well as ongoing training and experience under a skilled supervisor.

None of these jobs require a four-year college degree, although some of the trades are supported by two-year community college programs. Careers in nursing and computer programming require some schooling, and insurance and real estate agents must be certified by passing a state exam. Police and firefighters must graduate from the academy, and the military offers many job skills in exchange for a commitment of at least four years active duty.

Most salaried careers require a college education. Teaching grades K-12 requires a state credential and at least a bachelor’s degree. College professors, social workers, therapists, doctors, attorneys, clergy, and top corporate managers all have advanced degrees. Most of these career paths are laid out for you while you are still in school and involve extended periods of internship or residency. Switching from one to another requires starting over as a student and working your way back up.

Regardless of which job or career you decide to pursue, you will need to create a professional resume. This one-page summary of your education, skills, and experience will highlight what you can offer an employer and draw on the support of trusted references who know the quality of your work. The internet is filled with resume templates and there are innumerable books and classes on how to write a great one. Take advantage of all the career placement resources available to you at your school.

Building relationships is an important part of finding the right job. Social media sites like LinkedIn and YouTube have become effective networking tools with which to market yourself. Getting to know people in your community and paying attention to new businesses and developments keeps your finger on the pulse of the local marketplace. Talking to friends and family about their work gives you new ideas. Researching careers on the internet will help you narrow down your search.

If you decide to go into business for yourself, you will need seed money from savings, a bank loan, or individual investors. Remember to obtain the appropriate copyrights, patents, and trademarks to protect your work and ideas. Work with others in the community to get yourself started. Build your customer base by capitalizing on your most popular product. If you decide to incorporate, you will need to file the proper paperwork with the state and hire an accountant. Entrepreneurship can be exciting but also risky. Do your homework and know what you are getting into before you begin.

Once you are called for an interview, you will need to present the best you to your potential employer. Dress professionally, be punctual, look them in the eye with a firm handshake, and answer questions pleasantly and confidently. Remember that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you. Come to the meeting with questions you want to ask and wait for the opportune moment to do so. Answer their questions as best you can and give yourself credit for an interview well done when you leave.

Be resilient. Do not take rejection personally. Keep submitting your applications and try again. Persistence pays off in job searching. In the meantime, polish up your resume and keep narrowing your search. Your opportunity will present itself when the time is right. Believe in yourself and your abilities. You have a lot to offer. Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner once said that vocation is where your greatest joy and the world’s greatest need intersect. Trust in your arrival at that intersection.


  1. What kinds of jobs or careers are you interested in? What skills, education, wardrobe, or experience would you need to pursue them?
  2. Do you have a current resume? If not, what would you include in it?
  3. Who would be your best job references? Approach each of them and ask them for a reference after you decide what professional direction you will take.

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

Economics Topic 9 Summary: Setting Financial Goals

I often told my economics students that success in business is as much a result of sound financial management as it is the ability to generate wealth. This is especially true for entrepreneurs. In the end, profit is more important to the bottom line than total revenue. Ending the month with a positive cash flow is the first step in maintaining a healthy financial household.

But where does a positive cash flow begin? Most economists and financial advisors agree it begins with proper planning. Setting realistic and achievable financial goals is essential to success for both businesses and households (and government agencies, if we are to complete the circular flow of the economy). But how do you come up with these goals? Consumers have any number of financial “experts” who publish books and blogs and give regular seminars on this topic. The key is to listen to yourself amidst all the “professional” advice and chart your own path to success.

As described in my blog on Everyday Economics, this begins with a monthly budget. But it does not end there. Ask yourself where you want to be in a year, five years, and ten years, not just at the end of this month. Start a savings account and deposit a fixed percentage of your income every month. Allot yourself a discretionary fund for unforeseen expenses or spontaneous shopping or entertainment, and try not to exceed that amount on a regular basis.

Daily spending habits have a lot to do with your ability to meet financial goals. Impulse buying at stores or online can cut into both discretionary and regular funds. Special “sales” can often be snares to solicit unnecessary spending. Hobbies and collections can be part of a satisfying lifestyle, but only within the confines of a realistic budget. Neglecting automobile maintenance, going out to the mall or the movies too often, leaving appliances on at home, and expensive vacations all drain your monthly budget and build up debt. Alcoholic beverages, fancy restaurant meals, and tobacco products can be hard on financial as well as physical and mental health.

Always plan for the unexpected. No one wants to think about economic downturns, health setbacks, convalescence, layoffs, budget cuts, natural disasters, or loss of loved ones. But your budget can include a savings account for such emergencies. A good yardstick is three months of income stashed away for difficult circumstances. If you are unable to do this at first, begin with small increments and build your “rainy day fund.” The people who saved rather than spent during the “Roaring Twenties” were grateful when the hard times of the Great Depression set in.

Many of you reading this blog are still in school and thus operating within a limited budget. This does not mean that sound financial planning excludes you, even those of you still living as household dependents. On the contrary, learning to live within your means on a modest budget can help you immensely when you begin to earn more in a career. If you can maintain the discipline of living simply, then extra wealth can be seen as more than additional spending income. This gives you more choices of what to do with your money.

Investing can be a good use of extra assets once you decide to use them as capital. Cash deposit or “CD” accounts earn some interest but are unavailable during the term of investment. Real estate, stocks, bonds, and commodities can yield sound returns over time, but are costly and potentially dangerous to your cash flow in the short term if entered into lightly. Pay close attention to market fluctuations and watch out for speculative “bubbles.” The economics axiom that “there is no such thing as a free lunch” can be equally applied to “get rich quick” schemes. Dependable wealth, like a trustworthy relationship, is built gradually and developed over time.

Your personal financial planning will depend on your life goals. What career do you wish to pursue? How much will the schooling for that career cost? If you like to travel, will you travel for business or pleasure? Are you an avid collector, and if so, what costs are involved with that hobby? Do you have family relationships that require financial cost? Do you plan to have a family of your own? What health considerations must you include in your budget? All of these and more are important questions to ask as you begin to plot your course of action.

The strength of the national economy depends on consumer and business spending and a positive cash flow between revenues and expenditures. Your personal budget is no different. Just as the President must submit an annual budget to Congress for approval, so you must balance unlimited wants with limited resources. Mastering this balance is the key to financial success.


  1. What are your financial goals for the next year? How about the next five or ten years?
  2. What kinds of investments interest you? How can you achieve your desired level of participation in those investments?
  3. Where do you spend the most money in your current lifestyle? What changes would you make in that spending this year?

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at

Economics Topic 8 Summary: Everyday Economics

The word economics has its roots in the Greek word oikonomia, or “housekeeping.” For each of us living and participating as residents of a local community, managing our own household is where economics takes on personal meaning and importance. Achieving and maintaining economic independence is the goal of a fulfilling adult life and the motivation that has drawn millions from across the globe to American shores. From balancing a checkbook to selecting a work wardrobe to planning a personal budget to making purchases online, “everyday economics” is where our participation in the marketplace begins.

Creating a positive cash flow is the first step in establishing economic independence. This depends on a regular financial budget that is carefully planned and maintained. As in the science of economics as a whole, personal financial management is based on a realistic assessment of unlimited wants and limited resources. Monthly income from wages/salaries, inheritance, savings, or investments is matched up with monthly expenses such as rent/mortgage, utilities, food, transportation, insurance, clothing, and entertainment. Students must include books and tuition and parents must account for childcare, doctor visits, and other expenses. Retirees must adjust their lifestyle based on a reduced income from pensions, IRAs, or government transfer payments.

Wages and salaries are subject to taxation, as are business revenues for entrepreneurs. Net wages are paid to the worker in check or direct deposit form after deductions such as federal and state income tax, Social Security tax, health care, union dues, and retirement accounts are subtracted from gross wages. Bills are usually paid from a checking account after savings have been deducted from net wages. Ideally, three months pay should be set aside for emergency expenses. Tax records and receipts, especially for business owners, should be collected and stored for at least seven years in case of a federal tax audit.

If your workplace is too far to walk to every day, transportation options must be weighed carefully. I rode a commuter train to and from school for ten years of my teaching career, but I was fortunate enough to teach in a location near a train station. The monthly pass cost around $200, which was a savings when gas prices were high. And I still had to drive my car to work sometimes, which meant expenses for insurance, parking, and maintenance. Walking or bicycling to work is good exercise and saves money if that is an option for you. Carpooling with colleagues can also reduce monthly expenses and build work relationships.

Establishing excellent credit (a FICO score of 750 or higher) is needed to obtaining a good loan for a car, home, or business. Servicing of debt (including mortgage or rent) should not be allowed to exceed a third of monthly net income, and reliance on bank-issued credit cards for making daily purchases should be avoided unless the balance is paid in full at the end of each month. It is good to have numerous credit accounts, as this boosts one’s credit score, as long as the interest rates and balances on those accounts are low.

Protecting one’s assets and privacy is vital in today’s online, credit based economy. You can order a free copy of your credit score each year and make sure all the information on it is correct. Guard against fraudulent “phishing” emails by not opening messages from people you do not know. Destroy all personal financial records you do not keep locked up at home. Monitor your credit card statements from your bank every week and report immediately any charge that you did not authorize. Change your online passwords regularly to minimize the threat of identity theft.

What to eat and wear, where to shop and go for fun, and how to spend your weekends and vacations are all important daily decisions and must be made with your monthly budget in mind. Big name stores have lower prices and more choice, but local businesses and farmers markets may need your business more. Generic brands are cheaper but sometimes of inferior quality to national brands. Some states have high sales taxes and others have none at all. Utilities can be kept to a minimum if extra or premium channels and services are removed from your accounts.

Getting along with colleagues at work, roommates and neighbors at home, and relatives on holiday can all have profound effects on daily household management. I always began the school year in my economics classes by explaining that nearly every personal decision is economic: what you wear and eat, where you live and play, with whom you work or study or hang out. Approaching the management of your time and money in a deliberate, organized fashion leads to better results. A careful combination of planning and flexibility is the best way to manage everyday economics.


  1. Do you have a monthly personal budget? If not, what would it look like?
  2. Why is it important to remember that credit cards are not money?
  3. Is time or money more valuable to you? What is the best way to manage both?

Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

To sign up for tutoring, please visit my website at