Dissent and the Hydra

“[G]uided by the history and tradition that map the essential components of our Nation’s concept of ordered liberty, we must ask what the Fourteenth Amendment means by the term ‘liberty.’”
—Justice Samuel Alito, leaked draft, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization
“Early attempts to cope with this vile infection resembled battling the Hydra.”
—Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Shelby County v. Holder


We turn our collars up against the chill of raw judicial power

The fabulous many-headed snake of the marshes of Lerna

It is said that if one head is smyte, three heads grow

A rancorous national controversy

Of spring-headed Hydras and sea-shouldering Whales

Members of the court split three ways

Gestational age ministers life to this monstrous Hydra

We make a long list of circuit conflicts

To cope with this vile infection

We are a quick child

We expect more from an opinion striking at the heart

Had we as many mouths as Hydra, our answer would stop ’em all

For liberty is a capacious term

A jettisoned framework

An animated hiss and whistling wail

Hydra assailants return every hour

Yet their cuts produce in time a perfect animal

Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition

Of a deeply rooted right, full of hydras and crocodiles

This scheme of ordered liberty is the Court’s own brainchild

Poison fumes, poisoned blood

In a long constellation

With a few bright stars


Copyright © 2022 by Jena Osman. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 22, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.

About this Poem

I started this poem just after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away. I picked it up again after Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion, which anticipated the majority opinion that overturned Roe v. Wade, was leaked to the press. Ginsburg was considered a great dissenter; perhaps her most famous dissent was in Shelby v. Holder in 2013, a ruling that essentially struck down the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This poem is built from language sourced from that case, the Alito draft, and from the definition of ‘hydra’ in the Oxford English Dictionary. I’m interested in how collage can serve as another kind of dissent.”
Jena Osman