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Handout #4:

Throughout the history of the Supreme Court (in fact, throughout U.S. history generally), dissent has played an important role. Dissenting opinions are important because the reasons and arguments they express may become the basis of future majority opinions. People who have not agreed with a Court's decision in a case have often read the written dissent to get clues about what might persuade the Court to overturn a decision in the future. By their nature, dissents tend to be very eloquent and persuasive written speech.

Justice John Marshall Harlan is known as one of the greatest and most courageous dissenters. In addition to his lone dissent in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, Harlan was also the sole dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). In his dissent in Plessy he declared, "Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens." Harlan's dissents in the civil rights cases of the 1880s were even quoted in the majority opinions of the civil rights cases of the 1950s, when much of the rest of the country began to share his views that separate public facilities cannot be equal.


Think about the video segment you saw about Harlan's dissent in the Civil Rights Cases and write a three- or four-paragraph essay that addresses each of the following questions:

  • How do you think Harlan's position as a Southerner affected his views about Reconstruction and about the Civil Rights Cases?

  • Why do you think Harlan seemed paralyzed when he began to draft his dissent?

  • It took courage for Justice Harlan to be the lone dissenter in the Civil Rights Cases. Where do you think Justice Harlan found the courage?

Journal Entry:

Write a two- or three-paragraph journal entry that addresses the following questions:

  • Have you ever voiced an opinion and found that you are the only person who feels that way?

  • What does it feel like to be the only person with a certain opinion?

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