Most Divisive Supreme Court Decisions, Obamacare & More (Photos)

As the Supreme Court voted to uphold Obamacare, we revisit some of the most contentious rulings in U.S. history, from Bush v. Gore to Dred Scott and Roe v. Wade.

Clockwise from top left: Getty; AP; Getty; AP

Clockwise from top left: Getty; AP; Getty; AP

As the Supreme Court voted to uphold Obamacare, we revisit some of the most contentious rulings in U.S. history, from Bush v. Gore to Dred Scott and Roe v. Wade.

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The Supreme Court upheld President Obama's signature piece of legislation on Thursday—even the controversial individual mandate, which survived as a tax. In one of the most surprising parts of the decision, Chief Justice John Roberts voted with the majority, agreeing that Americans can be asked to buy health insurance. The case has enflamed passions on both sides. The anti-health-care crowd argues the very fate of individual freedom hangs in the balance, while the pro-reform group hopes the court will keep the law intact to help the millions who can’t afford health insurance. Either way the court rules, it’s sure to be contentious.

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Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

When the conservative nonprofit Citizens United was prevented from airing advertisements for its documentary Hillary: The Movie during the 2008 election on the grounds that its critical content violated the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, Citizens United brought its case all the way to the Supreme Court, leading to a decision that continues to spark controversy. The Court voted 5–4 in favor of Citizens United in one of the most important First Amendment cases in years. In the majority opinion, the justices said preventing corporations from campaigning for particular candidates is a violation of free speech. Though corporations are still banned from giving money directly to a campaign, Citizens United has been credited with the rise of super PACs, which can accept unlimited donations from individuals and corporations to promote political causes.

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Bush v. Gore

Bush v. Gore not only resolved a state vote recount but finalized the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. Al Gore requested a recount of the Florida ballots after George W. Bush won the contested state by an extremely narrow margin. About a month after the election, the Supreme Court voted to stop the ongoing manual recount efforts on the grounds that the methods being used left too much room for interpretation of a ballot and thus violated the Fourteenth Amendment. This decision allowed Bush’s Florida win—and, by extension, the whole election—to stand, and he was inaugurated the following February.


Lawrence v. Texas
In 2003 the Lawrence v. Texas decision was a watershed moment for gay rights in America. In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court struck down Texas’s anti-sodomy law, finding that sexual conduct between consenting adults was protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. The court reversed its 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, in which it had upheld a Georgia law that made sodomy illegal between homosexuals. The Lawrence case not only overruled Bowers but also nullified sodomy laws in about a dozen other states.

Charles Tasnadi / AP Photo

Hustler v. Falwell

In 1983 Hustler magazine ran a parody of conservative evangelical minister Jerry Falwell, saying he had lost his virginity to his mother in an outhouse. Falwell sued for libel and infliction of emotional distress. A jury awarded Falwell $150,000, but Hustler publisher Larry Flynt appealed. The Supreme Court eventually ruled 8–0 that Flynt and Hustler were protected by the First Amendment.

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Roe v. Wade

In the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, the court ruled that state laws banning abortion were unconstitutional and that states could not outlaw or regulate any aspect of abortion performed during the first trimester of any pregnancy. At the time of the decision, most states had severe restrictions on abortion practices. In the 7–2 decision, the court argued that the Constitution protects an individual’s “zone of privacy” and that “zone of privacy” was “broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.”

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Loving v. Virginia

Before Loving v. Virginia was decided, it was illegal in certain parts of the United States for interracial couples to marry. Mildred Loving, who was of African and Native American descent, and her husband, Richard, who was white, were Virginia residents who married in Washington, D.C., in June 1958. When they returned to Virginia, they were charged with violating the commonwealth’s Racial Integrity Act, a law that banned white people from marrying non-whites. They were convicted and sentenced to a year in prison, but their sentence was suspended for 25 years, so long as they left Virginia. The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in 1967 overturned their conviction and invalidated anti-miscegenation statutes across the country.

Engel v. Vitale

In 1962’s Engel v. Vitale, the core issue was whether state officials could write an official school prayer and force public-school students to recite it. The Supreme Court found that the practice violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which bans the state from prohibiting the free exercise of religion. The case involved families in New Hyde Park, N.Y., who didn’t want their children to be subjected to a prayer to “Almighty God” in public school. Writing for the 6–1 majority, Justice Hugo Black stressed the importance of the separation of church and state.

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Brown v. Board of Education

Brown v. Board of Education was really five cases on the constitutionality of state-sponsored segregation in public schools. When they reached the Supreme Court in 1952, all five were consolidated under the now famous name. After rehearing the case in 1953, the court unanimously agreed that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. On May 14, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the court’s opinion, saying: “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal …”

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Plessy v. Ferguson

In 1892 Homer Plessy was arrested for sitting in the “white” car of an East Louisiana Railroad train. Louisiana had just passed the Separate Car Act, which mandated separate cars for “whites” and “coloreds.” In 1896 the case made its way to the Supreme Court, where Plessy’s lawyer argued that the Separate Car Act violated the 13th and 14th Amendments. The court ruled against Plessy, with Justice Henry Brown writing, “A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races—has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races.” The case set the precedent for the separate-but-equal doctrine.

Louis Schultze / Missouri Historical Society

Scott v. Sanford

Dred Scott, a slave, sued for his freedom in 1846. He had spent years living with his owner in the free Wisconsin territory, and he initiated his suit years after his return to Missouri and his owner had passed away. Eventually the case wound up before the Supreme Court, and the justices voted 7–2 against him. In 1857 Chief Justice Roger B. Taney read the majority opinion, which stated that blacks were not, and never could be, U.S. citizens. Thus, Scott could not sue in a U.S. court and could therefore not expect protection from the federal government or the courts. The ruling also stated that Congress lacked the authority to ban slavery from a federal territory. Many consider it to be the worst Supreme Court decision in history.