Understanding the Minnesota Judiciary: Judicial Decision Making

Lesson Duration

Authors: Jake Giesen, Kathleen Norman, Denise North

This lesson describes Minnesota’s different levels of courts differentiating them by structure, function, and decision making processes.  The lesson includes a brief lecture/direct instruction component as well as a guided discussion activity.  The direct instruction component is appropriate for any Civics course with a Judicial Branch unit focus.  Due to its content, the lesson activity as written is most suitable for older high school students in Government or Civics classes.


  1. The students will be able to describe the three levels courts in Minnesota’s Judicial Branch.
  2. The students will be able to accurately apply the different decision-making processes employed by each level of the MN courts.
  3. The students will write a Supreme-Court-style opinion encompassing an analysis of legal arguments and interpretations beyond their own opinions.

Grade Level

Most appropriate for Seniors/Juniors

Time to Complete

Approximately 50-60 minutes

Materials Needed


  1. Distribute blank worksheets with the chart on top and activity below and the student readings.
  2. Project or write on board details that complete the chart, go through with class and ensure each completes the chart on their sheet. (approx. 5-10 minutes)
  3. Describe standards of review used by the appellate courts:

1. Questions of law. Appellate judges determine for themselves what law to apply, what the statute means, what the constitution requires.  They do not have to give the district court any deference on questions of law.

2. Clearly erroneous. District court’s determination of what happened (factual findings) is given deference by the appellate courts. If there is no reasonable evidence to support the findings, the appellate courts will set it aside.  District courts’ decisions regarding the facts are given deference because the district court judge observes the testimony and can best decide if witnesses are credible and telling the truth.

3. Abuse of discretion. District court judges manage trials the best they can. They have some discretion in many of the decisions they make such as what instructions to provide the jury, what evidence to allow, etc. The appellate judges can order a new trial if during an appeal it is shown that the district court abused its discretion and its decisions may have changed the outcome of the trial.

Abuse of Discretion Examples

  • Student example: your school does not require school uniforms and your parents let you decide what to wear. You get to exercise your “discretion.” But if you were to decide to wear your pajamas to school, your parents would see that as an abuse of your discretion.
  • Student example: your parents let you drive the car back and forth to school and to activities with your friends. Choosing to drive 50 miles to a pizza place would probably be seen as an abuse of your discretion.
  • Judicial example: A judge in a divorce case determines how much one party will be required to pay to the other party for “maintenance” (living expenses). If most judges would order between $800 and $1,200 a month in similar cases, it would be an abuse of discretion to award maintenance of $4,000.
  1. Read scenario to the students and read Question 1.  Give the students several minutes to write their responses to Question 1.  Discuss several of their responses.  (approx. 5-10 minutes)
  2. Read Question 2 and allow time to respond and for students to discuss their responses with small group of neighbors.  Discuss together as a class several of the student responses, looking specifically for justification of their answers relating back to the third column on the chart. (approximately 10 minutes)
  3. Read Question 3 and allow time for response and small group discussion.  Solicit several responses from the class as to the general result of the appeal.  (approx. 5-10 minutes)
  4. Allow remaining time for the students to craft their MN Supreme Court Opinions.  Remind the students to pay attention to the way in which a Supreme Court makes its decisions based on precedent and Constitutional interpretation, generally with an application beyond the individual case, focusing on the overall legal impact of the decision.


This lesson plan was developed as part of a curriculum-development workshop that was sponsored by the Minnesota Supreme Court Historical Society, with the assistance of the Minnesota Supreme Court, the Minnesota State Bar Association Civic Education Committee, and the Learning Law and Democracy Foundation. Lesson development was supported in part with funds from the Minnesota Legacy Amendment Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.


Types of especially helpful comments: How you modified this for your class, How you would improve this lesson.

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