Cases in Which Sandra Day O'Connor Cast the Decisive Vote

Document Date: July 1, 2005


Sandra Day O’Connor

Other notable rulings >>

O’Connor Replacement Could Roll Back Vital Civil Liberties Protections >>

Sandra Day O’Connor has been the deciding vote in many important Supreme Court decisions affecting civil rights, environmental protection, personal privacy, voting rights, protection against discrimination and more. If she is replaced by someone who doesn’t share her fair and impartial perspective, these are among the key 5-4 decisions in danger of being overturned:

Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) affirmed the right of state colleges and universities to use affirmative action in their admissions policies to increase educational opportunities for minorities and promote racial diversity on campus.

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation v. EPA (2004) said the Environmental Protection Agency could step in and take action to reduce air pollution under the Clean Air Act when a state conservation agency fails to act.

Rush Prudential HMO, Inc. v. Moran (2002) upheld state laws giving people the right to a second doctor’s opinion if their HMOs tried to deny them treatment.

Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) broke with Chief Justice Rehnquist and other opponents of a woman’s right to choose as part of a 5-4 majority in affirming Roe v. Wade.

Hunt v. Cromartie (2001) affirmed the right of state legislators to take race into account to secure minority voting rights in redistricting.

Tennessee v. Lane (2004) upheld the constitutionality of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and required that courtrooms be physically accessible to the disabled.

Hibbs v. Winn (2004) subjected discriminatory and unconstitutional state tax laws to review by the federal judiciary.

Zadvydas v. Davis (2001) told the government it could not indefinitely detain an immigrant who was under final order of removal even if no other country would accept that person.

Brentwood Academy v. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (2001) affirmed that civil rights laws apply to associations regulating interscholastic sports.

Lee v. Weisman (1992) continued the tradition of government neutrality toward religion, finding that government-sponsored prayer is unacceptable at graduations and other public school events.

Brown v. Legal Foundation of Washington (2003) maintained a key source of funding for legal assistance for the poor.

Morse v. Republican Party of Virginia PDF (1996) said key anti-discrimination provisions of the Voting Rights Act apply to political conventions that choose party candidates.

Federal Election Commission v. Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee PDF (2001) upheld laws that limit political party expenditures that are coordinated with a candidate and seek to evade campaign contribution limits.

McConnell v. Federal Election Commission PDF (2003) upheld most of the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, including its ban on political parties’ use of unlimited soft money contributions.

Stenberg v. Carhart (2000) overturned a state abortion ban, legal analysis

McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky (2005) upheld the principle of government neutrality towards religion and ruled unconstitutional Ten Commandments displays in several courthouses. Some of the strongest language came from Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s concurrence with the 5-4 majority, in which she said: “Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”

“When the government associates one set of religious beliefs with the state and identifies nonadherents as outsiders,” Justice O’Connor wrote, “it encroaches upon the individual’s decision about whether and how to worship?Allowing government to be a potential mouthpiece for competing religious ideas risks the sort of division that might easily spill over into suppression of rival beliefs.”

Justice O’Connor’s words echo her opinion in Lynch v. Donnelly , in which she observed that state endorsement of religion “sends a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.”


ACLU Urges High Court to Reject Texas School’s “One Vote, One Prayer” Policy at Football Games
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a Reagan appointee, wrote that state endorsement of religion, “sends a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.”

U.S. Supreme Court Limits Government Ability to Interfere with Parents’ Child-Rearing Decisions
The ruling included a four-justice plurality, authored by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, as well as two separate concurring opinions

Supreme Court Strikes Down Texas Law Against Same-Sex “Sodomy,” Signaling New Era for Gay Rights was a civil rights triumph and a watershed in the history of gay rights in this country. Under the Texas sodomy statute that the Court has now declared unconstitutional, only same-sex couples faced imprisonment for private acts of sexual intimacy. In a broadly worded decision expounding on the meaning of personal liberty under the Constitution, the Court both expanded the privacy rights of all Americans and promoted the right of lesbians and gay men to equal treatment under the law.

ACLU Claims Free Speech Victory in Texas; Displaying Political Posters is Now Legal
In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court noted that residential signs have long been an important and distinct form of expression that enjoys the highest level of constitutional protection. At that time, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote “with rare exceptions, content discrimination in regulations on the speech of private citizens on private property is presumptively impermissible.”

Supreme Court Says Courts Can Review Bush Administration Actions in Terrorism Fight
Writing for an 8-1 majority in the case of American-born detainee Yaser Esam Hamdi, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said the Court has “made clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation’s citizens.” Four of the Justices (Souter, Ginsburg, Scalia and Stevens) said that they would go further and order Hamdi’s immediate release, and Justice Souter in particular said that holding Hamdi incommunicado is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Two Supreme Court Rulings Expand Police Powers and Limit Civil Rights Enforcement

In the dissenting opinion Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “as the recent debate over racial profiling demonstrates all too clearly, a relatively minor traffic infraction may often serve as an excuse for stopping and harassing an individual.”

ACLU Applauds High Court Decision Permitting Race As a Factor in Drawing Congressional Districts
The key to this case was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who had previously ruled against the district and whose vote tipped the balance in favor of the district.

Setting Limits on Drug War Tactics, High Court Rejects Drug Roadblocks
In an opinion written for the 6-3 majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said that the reasoning behind the Indianapolis roadblocks — chiefly that the benefit to the public outweighs the inconvenience — cannot justify the use of unconstitutional methods by the police.

“If this case were to rest on such a high level of generality, there would be little check on the authorities’ ability to construct roadblocks for almost any conceivable law enforcement purpose,” the opinion said.

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