4 Most Epic Ruth Bader Ginsburg Dissents

by Chris Tognotti
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So, Monday really happened, right? After the Supreme Court's controversial ruling on the Hobby Lobby case — a 5-4 decision, along the Justices' usual ideological lines — a lot of ink and a lot of angst has been spilled about the judgment. The court's decision to exempt Hobby Lobby from providing full health insurance benefits, contraception included, to its female employees in light of its owners' "sincerely-held" religious beliefs has proven hard to swallow, especially since it places erroneous beliefs about conception above scientific reasoning. But, if there's a silver lining to be found, it's that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a bonafide judicial badass.

Her brilliant 35-page dissent swept the Web following its release, inspired a YouTube video of its own and a whole lot of memes, and — most importantly — has provided pro-women's rights critics of the court a rallying point in the aftermath of the decision. But this sort of thing is nothing new to Ginsburg — she's been a Supreme Court justice for over 20 years, and has spent at least some of that time flexing her mental muscles to passionately, eloquently disagree with her colleagues every now and then. Without further ado, here are four times Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a badass in dissent...

1. Bush v. Gore

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In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled to resolve likely the most hotly-contested political battle in recent American history.

The winding saga of the 2000 Florida recount ultimately landed before the Supreme Court, which ruled by a 5-4 margin that there was no means of counting all the votes within the timeline laid out in Title 3 of the United States Code, therefore ending the dispute and handing the presidency to Bush.

This was a particularly agonizing decision for Gore supporters, as the Court had halted all recounts three days prior to the ruling — basically, letting the clock run before deciding it was too late. Ginsburg was unapologetically firm:

The Court assumes that time will not permit "orderly judicial review of any disputed matters that might arise." ... But no one has doubted the good faith and diligence with which Florida election officials, attorneys for all sides of this controversy, and the courts of law have performed their duties. Notably, the Florida Supreme Court has produced two substantial opinions within 29 hours of oral argument. In sum, the Court's conclusion that a constitutionally adequate recount is impractical is a prophecy the Court's own judgment will not allow to be tested. Such an untested prophecy should not decide the Presidency of the United States. I dissent.
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2. Shelby County v. Holder

In June 2013, the Supreme Court had a mammoth of an issue before it — the ongoing state of the Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. It sought to end the vicious era of intimidation, violence and discrimination suffered by countless minority would-be voters, specifically black voters in the South.

The keystone to the law, in a sense, was the authority of the federal government to intervene in electoral matters in historically discriminatory states, so to ensure a fair and equal voting population. Under Section 4 of the law, such state and local governments had to receive pre-clearance for such sweeping and potentially biased measures. Congress reviewed and again agreed to this overwhelmingly in 2006.

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The Court's conservative Justices didn't like that those states had to play by those rules. In spite of the recent example of voter ID laws spreading throughout Republican-controlled states — one state official even mused before the 2012 elections that voter ID would allow Mitt Romney to win Pennsylvania — the court ruled 5-4 that Section 4 was unconstitutional, leaving Ginsburg stern in dissent:

The Court's opinion can hardly be described as an exemplar of restrained and moderate decision making. Quite the opposite. Hubris is a fit word for today's demolition of the VRA. Congress approached the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA with great care and seriousness. The same cannot be said of the Court's opinion today. The Court makes no genuine attempt to engage with the massive legislative record that Congress assembled. Instead, it relies on increases in voter registration and turnout as if that were the whole story. In my judgment, the Court errs egregiously by overriding Congress' decision.

3. Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action

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Also in June 2013, The Supreme Court overturned a lower court's ruling in favor of the University of Texas, which was defending its race-conscious admissions policies against a lawsuit from undergraduate Abigail Fisher, who claimed she was passed over in favor of less-deserving minority candidates. The court ruled against Texas 6-2, with Justice Kagan recusing herself.

Ginsburg's dissent rips at the notion that ignoring race is the same thing as achieving equality. Fisher was a proponent of Texas’ "Top 10 Percent Plan," by which the top 10 percent of high school graduates are guaranteed admission into all state-funded colleges. But, as Ginsburg explained, society prevents this kind of system from being truly colorblind:

Texas' percentage plan was adopted with racially segregated neighborhoods and schools front and center stage. ... It is race consciousness, not blindness to race, that drives such plans. I have several times explained why government actors, including state universities, need not be blind to the lingering effects of "an overtly discriminatory past," the legacy of "centuries of law-sanctioned inequality."

4. Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

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And now, this most recent instance of badassery. Ginsburg's exhaustive, precise dissent against her five colleagues — all of them male, incidentally — is a sight to behold, and is truly worth your time, even if you're not a huge court-watcher. Some choice cuts, as culled by Mother Jones:

The exemption sought by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga would…deny legions of women who do not hold their employers' beliefs access to contraceptive coverage.
Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations. Workers who sustain the operations of those corporations commonly are not drawn from one religious community.
Approving some religious claims while deeming others unworthy of accommodation could be 'perceived as favoring one religion over another,' the very risk the Establishment Clause was designed to preclude.
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Similar to Bush v Gore, the Hobby Lobby ruling sought a severely-limited interpretation, and tried to tamp down the notion that it set any precedent in any other area. As Justice Alito wrote:

This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs.

But Ginsburg ain't having it. As shown by her blunt and foreboding assessment, she sees the possible consequences of this ruling stretching out all around her: "The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield."