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Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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How a Dissent Can Presage a Ruling: The Case of Justice Harlan

The Brown v. Board of Education I case was decided unanimously. However, sometimes there are a few justices on the Supreme Court of the United States who do not agree with the majority decision. These justices often write dissenting opinions that express how they disagree with the majority decision.

Though dissents do not have the force of law that majority opinions do, they are important because they often show the public the battle between different interpretations of the law. Sometimes, the dissent in one case becomes the prevailing viewpoint in a future case that overturns an earlier decision. One such case where a dissent presaged a future decision occurred in the Plessy and Brown cases.

In the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) case, Justice Harlan disagreed with the majority of his colleagues. The majority declared that it was possible for segregated facilities to be equal, therefore segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Harlan wrote a dissent stating that segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment because it used the law to sanction inequality among races. Later, in the Brown v. Board of Education I (1954) case Chief Justice Earl Warren also declared that separate facilities violated the Constitution, though he based his argument on slightly different premises.

Excerpts from Justice Harlan's dissent and Chief Justice Warren's majority opinion

Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)
Justice Harlan's Dissent
Brown v. Board of Education (1954)
Chief Justice Warren Opinion
"Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. . . .

"The destinies of the two races, in this country, are indissolubly linked together, and the interests of both require that the common government of all shall not permit the seeds of race hate to be planted under the sanction of law. What can more certainly arouse race hate, what more certainly create and perpetuate a feeling of distrust between these races, than state enactments which, in fact, proceed on the ground that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens? That, as all will admit, is the real meaning of such legislation as was enacted in Louisiana."

Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. . . . Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms. . .

"To separate [children in grade and high schools] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone. . . .

"We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate education facilities are inherently unequal."

The justices clearly share the same opinion of constitutionality of segregation.  Can you determine how their opinions differ?

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