The 7 Most Liberal Supreme Court Justices in American History

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg greeting Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama greets Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg before his State of the Union address in 2012. Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has long been a thorn in the side of American conservatives. She's been pilloried in the right-wing press by a range of so-called political experts, including college drop-out and shock jock Lars Larson, who publicly declared that Justice Ginsburg is "anti-American."

Her stinging dissent in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which recently granted corporations certain exceptions to the Affordable Care Act with regard to birth control coverage, has once again loosed the gates of extreme conservative rhetoric.

One columnist in The Washington Times even crowned her "liberal bully of the week" even though hers was the dissenting, not majority, opinion.

These critics act as if a liberal judge on the Supreme Court is a brand new development. Yet it's the work of previous liberal judges that protects their right to come pretty close to slandering Justice Ginsburg in their published work.

The Most Liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justices

Also unfortunate for her critics is the fact that it's unlikely that Justice Ginsburg will go down in history as the most liberal justice. Just take a look at her competition. While they sometimes sided with their conservative colleagues (often in tragic ways, such as in Korematsu v. United States, which upheld the constitutionality of the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II), these justices are generally considered to be among the most liberal of all time:

  1. Louis Brandeis (term: 1916-1939) was the first Jewish member of the Supreme Court and brought a sociological view to his interpretation of law. He is justly famous for establishing the precedent that the right to privacy is, in his words, "the right to be let alone" (something right-wing extremists, libertarians, and anti-government activists seem to think they invented).
  1. William J. Brennan (1956-1990) helped expand civil rights and liberties for all Americans. He supported abortion rights, opposed the death penalty, and provided new protections for freedom of the press. For example, in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), Brennan established the "actual malice" standard, in which news outlets were protected from charges of libel as long as what they wrote was not deliberately false.
  2. William O. Douglas (1939-1975) was the longest-serving justice on the Court, and was described by Time Magazine as "the most doctrinaire and committed civil libertarian ever to sit on the court." He fought against any regulation of speech, and famously faced impeachment after he issued a stay of execution for convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He is probably most well-known for arguing that citizens are guaranteed a right to privacy due to the "penumbras" (shadows) cast by the Bill of Rights in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), which established the right of citizens to have access to birth control information and devices.
  3. John Marshall Harlan (1877-1911) was the first to argue that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated the Bill of Rights. However, he's more famous for earning the nickname "The Great Dissenter" because he went against his colleagues in significant civil rights cases. In his dissent from Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the decision that opened the door to legal segregation, he affirmed some basic liberal principles: "In view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens...Our constitution is color-blind...In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law."
  1. Thurgood Marshall (1967-1991) was the first African-American justice and is often cited as having the most liberal voting record of all. As an attorney for the NAACP, he famously won Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which outlawed school segregation. It should not be surprising, then, that when he became a Supreme Court justice he continued to argue on behalf of individual rights, most notably as a strong opponent of the death penalty.
  2. Frank Murphy (1940-1949) fought against discrimination in many forms. He was the first justice to include the word "racism" in an opinion, in his vehement dissent in Korematsu v. United States (1944). In Falbo v. United States (1944), he wrote, "The law knows no finer hour than when it cuts through formal concepts and transitory emotions to protect unpopular citizens against discrimination and persecution."
  1. Earl Warren (1953-1969) is one of the most influential Chief Justices of all time. He forcefully pushed for the unanimous Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision and presided over decisions that further expanded civil rights and liberties, including those that mandated publicly-funded representation for indigent defendants in Gideon v. Wainright (1963), and required police to inform criminal suspects of their rights, in Miranda v. Arizona (1966).

Certainly other justices, including Hugo Black, Abe Fortas, Arthur J. Goldberg, and Wiley Blount Rutledge, Jr. made decisions that protected individual rights and created greater equality in the United States. But the judges listed above demonstrate that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is just the most recent participant in the strong liberal tradition of the Supreme Court-- and you can't accuse someone of radicalism if they're part of a long-standing tradition.