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It’s the time of the year when Supreme Court justices can get testy. They might have to find a new way to show it. The court’s most fought-over decisions in its most consequential cases often come in June, with dueling majority and dissenting opinions.

But when a justice is truly steamed to be on a decision’s losing side, the strongest form of protest is reading a summary of the dissent aloud in court. Dissenting justices exercise what a pair of scholars call the “nuclear option” just a handful of times a year, but when they do, they signal that behind the scenes, there’s frustration and even anger.

The coronavirus pandemic has kept the justices from their courtroom since March and forced them to change their ways in many respects. Now, in their season of weighty decisions, instead of the drama that can accompany the announcement of a majority decision and its biting dissent, the court’s opinions are being posted online without an opportunity for the justices to be heard.

University of Maryland, Baltimore County political science professor William Blake, who co-authored the article calling oral dissents the nuclear option, says a June without them would be a “missed opportunity.” They are “a chance to see the justices as exhibiting emotions,” not just the logic of their opinions, he said.

The act of reading can also be a signal to Congress. In a 2007 dissent Ginsburg read from the bench, she called on lawmakers to overturn her colleagues’ decision in a case about equal pay for women. Congress did, passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Ginsburg’s oral dissent underscored her belief that urgent action was needed, even if it wasn’t the only reason lawmakers acted.

University of Minnesota professor Timothy Johnson, who has written about oral dissents, says justices also reach the public through them. “If you can have a vociferous enough dissent from the bench you’re going to get the nightly news to talk about it,” he said.



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