Some Supreme Court cases are decided unanimously. However, sometimes
the justices do not agree with the majority decision. These justices
often write dissenting opinions that express how and why they disagree
with the majority decision.
Though dissents do not become law as majority opinions do, they are
important because they document the struggle 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. A dissent presaged a future decision in the Plessy and Brown
In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), 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 14th Amendment. Justice Harlan
wrote a dissent stating that segregation violated the 14th Amendment because it used the law to sanction inequality among races.
Later, in Brown v. Board of Education I (1954), Chief
Justice Earl Warren also declared that separate facilities violated the
Constitution, though he based his argument on slightly different
Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)—Justice Harlan's Dissent
"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
Brown v. Board of Education (1954)—Chief Justice Warren, Writing for the Majority
"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 them [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 educational facilities are
The justices clearly have the same opinion of the constitutionality of segregation. Can you determine how they differ?