Supreme Court Swing-Vote Cases

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
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Swing Votes:

Many controversial issues have been decided by a 5-4 vote of the US Supreme Court. The swing vote is the person who is vote number five. It's called a swing vote because the person does not always vote with either "side" of the court. This profile examines five key issues and decisions where Justice Sandra Day O'Connor provided the swing vote.

Make Up of the Court:

For the concept of swing vote to make sense, one needs to know the divisions on the Court.

The Supreme Court is generally divided into two wings: liberal and conservative. The liberal justices are Stephen Gerald Breyer (1994), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1993), David Souter (1990), and John Paul Stevens (1975). Conservatives: Anthony McLeod Kennedy (1988), John G. Roberts, Jr. (2005), Antonin Scalia (1986), and Clarence Thomas (1991).


Stenberg v Carhart (2000)
O’Connor joined the liberal wing (Breyer, Ginsburg, Souter and Stevens), providing the key vote allowing the Court to overturne a Nebraska law banning a procedure known as "partial birth abortion." Subsequently, Congress banned the procedure in the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003; that law is on track to be argued before the Supreme Court. Abortion Overview


Gerrymandering is the practice of manipulating electoral districts. In 1995, in Miller v. Johnson (5-4), O’Connor joined the conservative group, Chief Justice Rehnquist, Kenney, Scalia and Thomas, in ruling that Georgia's "geographic monstrosity" (racially-inspired) violated the Equal Protection Clause.

In Veith v. Jubelirer (2004), the same five ruled that the Court cannot rule on gerrymandering if the intent is to disadvantage political adversaries.

Private School Vouchers:

Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002)
The Court approved a school voucher program in Ohio for low-income parents where most of the participants sent their children to religiously affiliated schools.

The Court ruled this was not a violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause. O’Connor voted with the more conservative faction, Chief Justice Rehnquist, Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas.

Racial Preferences in Admissions:

Grutter v. Bollinger (2003)
O'Connor wrote the majority opinion, joined by Breyer, Ginsburg, Souter and Stevens, which held that the University of Michigan Law School could use racial preferences to include blacks, Latinos, and Indians in its incoming class because of educational benefits associated with having a "critical mass" of minorities in the student body. O’Connor predicted that in 25 years racial preferences would no longer be necessary.

Religious Displays:

McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky (2005)
Because the First Amendment requires government to be neutral towards religion, the Court ruled that two Kentucky counties could not display copies of the Ten Commandments in their courtrooms because the displays had an overt religious purposes. O’Connor joined the more liberal justices: Breyer, Ginsburg, Souter and Stevens.