Here are some excerpts of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s Supreme Court opinions
Dec 1, 2023, 5:00 PM
The following are excerpts from Supreme Court opinions by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who died Friday at age 93:
From Florida v. Bostick in 1991, involving police searches on buses:
“We have held that the Fourth Amendment permits police officers to approach individuals at random in airport lobbies and other public places to ask them questions and to request consent to search their luggage, so long as a reasonable person would understand that he or she could refuse to cooperate. This case requires us to determine whether the same rule applies to police encounters that take place on a bus.
The mere fact that Bostick did not feel free to leave the bus does not mean that the police seized him. This court is not empowered to forbid law enforcement practices simply because it considers them distasteful. The Fourth Amendment proscribes unreasonable searches and seizures; it does not proscribe voluntary cooperation.
The cramped confines of a bus are one relevant factor that should be considered in evaluating whether a passenger’s consent is voluntary. We cannot agree, however, with the Florida Supreme Court that this single factor will be dispositive in every case.”
From Hudson v. McMillian in 1992, on excessive force against inmates:
“This case requires us to decide whether the use of excessive physical force against a prisoner may constitute cruel and unusual punishment when the inmate does not suffer serious injury. We answer that question in the affirmative.
When prison officials maliciously and sadistically use force to cause harm, contemporary standards of decency always are violated. This is true whether or not injury is evident. Otherwise, the Eighth Amendment would permit any physical punishment, no matter how diabolic or inhuman, inflicting less than some arbitrary quantity of injury.
That is not to say that every malevolent touch by a prison guard gives rise to a federal cause of action … blows directed at Hudson, which caused bruises, swelling, loosened teeth and a cracked dental plate, are not (too inconsequential) for Eighth Amendment purposes.”
From New York v. U.S. in 1992, on the limits on congressional power:
“This case implicates one of our nation’s newest problems of public policy and perhaps our oldest question of constitutional law. The public policy issue involves the disposal of radioactive waste … The constitutional question is as old as the Constitution: It consists of discerning the proper division of authority between the federal government and the states.
We conclude that while Congress has substantial power under the Constitution to encourage the states to provide for the disposal of radioactive waste generated within their borders, the Constitution does not confer upon Congress the ability simply to compel the states to do so.”
From Harris v. Forklift Systems in 1993, on workplace discrimination:
“Conduct that is not severe or pervasive enough to create an objectively hostile or abusive work environment — an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive — is beyond Title VII’s purview. Likewise, if the victim does not subjectively perceive the environment to be abusive, the conduct has not actually altered the conditions of the victim’s employment, and there is no Title VII violation.
But Title VII comes into play before the harassing conduct leads to a nervous breakdown. A discriminatorily abusive work environment, even one that does not seriously affect employees’ psychological well-being, can and often will detract from employees’ work performance, discourage employees from remaining on the job, or keep them from advancing their careers.
We therefore believe the district court erred in relying on whether the conduct ‘seriously affect plaintiff’s psychological well-being’ … Such an inquiry may needlessly focus the factfinder’s attention on concrete psychological harm, an element Title VII does not require.”
From Davis v. U.S. in 1994, involving police interrogations:
“In (1981) we held that law enforcement officers must immediately cease questioning a suspect who has clearly asserted his right to have counsel present during custodial interrogation.
Of course, when a suspect makes an ambiguous or equivocal statement it will often be good police practice for the interviewing officers to clarify whether or not he actually wants an attorney … But we decline to adopt a rule requiring officers to ask clarifying questions. If the suspect’s statement is not an unambiguous or equivocal request for counsel, the officers have no obligation to stop questioning him.”
From Vernonia School District v. Acton in 1995, in dissent, on drug tests for student athletes:
“By the reasoning of today’s decision, the millions of these students who participate in interscholastic sports, an overwhelming majority of whom have given school officials no reason whatsoever to suspect they use drugs at school, are open to an intrusive bodily search. …
For most of our constitutional history, mass, suspicionless searches have been generally considered per se unreasonable within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. And we have allowed exceptions in recent years only where it has been clear that a suspicion-based regime would be ineffectual. …
Nowhere is it less clear that an individualized suspicion requirement would be ineffectual than in the school context. In most schools, the entire pool of potential search targets — students — is under constant supervision by teachers and administrators and coaches, be it in classrooms, hallways or locker rooms. …
There is a substantial basis for concluding that a vigorous regime of suspicion-based testing … would have gone a long way toward solving Vernonia’s school drug problem while preserving the Fourth Amendment rights of James Acton and others like him.”
From Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, on affirmative action in higher education:
“Although all governmental uses of race are subject to strict scrutiny, not all are invalidated by it. As we have explained, ‘whenever the government treats any person unequally because of his or her race, that person has suffered an injury that falls squarely within the language and spirit of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection’…
…Not every decision influenced by race is equally objectionable and strict scrutiny is designed to provide a framework for carefully examining the importance and the sincerity of the reasons advanced by the governmental decision maker for the use of race in that particular context…
…We have long recognized that, given the important purpose of public education and the expansive freedoms of speech and thought associated with the university environment, universities occupy a special niche in our constitutional tradition… Our conclusion that the Law School has a compelling interest in a diverse student body is informed by our view that attaining a diverse student body is at the heart of the Law School’s proper institutional mission…
…These benefits are substantial. As the District Court emphasized, the Law School’s admissions policy promotes ‘cross-racial understanding,’ helps to break down racial stereotypes, and ‘enables (students) to better understand persons of different races’…
…In addition to the expert studies and reports entered into evidence at trial, numerous studies show that student body diversity promotes learning outcomes, and ‘better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society, and better prepares them as professionals’…
…In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity. All members of our heterogeneous society must have confidence in the openness and integrity of the educational institutions that provide this training. As we have recognized, law schools ‘cannot be effective in isolation from the individuals and institutions with which the law interacts’… Access to legal education (and thus the legal profession) must be inclusive of talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity, so that all members of our heterogeneous society may participate in the educational institutions that provide the training and education necessary to succeed in America.”
From Hamdi v. Rumsfeld in 2004, on the rights of detainees in the war on terrorism:
“We have long since 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. … (It) would turn our system of checks and balances on its head to suggest that a citizen could not make his way to court with a challenge to the factual basis for his detention by his government, simply because the Executive opposes making available such a challenge. …
Any process in which the executive’s factual assertions go wholly unchallenged or are simply presumed correct without any opportunity for the alleged combatant to demonstrate otherwise falls constitutionally short. …
We have no reason to doubt that courts faced with these sensitive matters will pay proper heed both to the matters of national security that might arise in an individual case and to the constitutional limitations safeguarding essential liberties that remain vibrant even in times of security concerns.”
From Kelo et al v. City of New London in 2005, in dissent, involving the taking of private property:
“Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner, so long as it might be upgraded — i.e., given to an owner who will use it in a way that the legislature deems more beneficial to the public — in the process. To reason, as the Court does, that the incidental public benefits resulting from the subsequent ordinary use of private property render economic development takings ‘for public use’ is to wash out any distinction between private and public use of property — and thereby effectively to delete the words ‘for public use’ from the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment…
The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the state from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory…
Any property may now be taken for the benefit of another private party, but the fallout from this decision will not be random. The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more. The Founders cannot have intended this perverse result. ‘That alone is a just government,’ wrote James Madison, ‘which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.’”