“Lawrence v. Texas”: Case Brief and Analysis

Facts

The plaintiff-appellants in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003) were medical technologist John Geddes Lawrence and his friend Tyron Garner, who were aged 55 and 31, respectively, when arrested for alleged anal sex at 10:30-11:00 p.m. on September 17, 1998, in Lawrence’s apartment at the outskirts of Houston. Under the long-standing Homosexual Conduct Law of the state of Texas, which was the defendant-appellee in this case, anal sex is an act of sodomy classified as a Class C misdemeanor. The Texas Penal Code in Chapter 21, Section 21.06 expressly provided that “deviant sexual intercourse such as oral and anal sex between members of the same sex” was a criminal offense.

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The arresting officer, Harris Country Deputy Sheriff Joseph Quinn, chanced upon the plaintiff-appellants performing the statutory crime while responding to a report about an armed man causing a disturbance in the place. The complaint turned out to be false, filed by Robert Royce Eubanks, 40, who merely wanted to harass the plaintiff-appellants because of an earlier homosexual relationship with Garner. Eubanks pleaded guilty to this false report and served 15 days in jail, but this issue was considered irrelevant to the case. On the evening in question, Deputy Sheriff Quinn entered Lawrence’s apartment with his weapon drawn and found Lawrence and Garner engaged in consensual anal sex and subsequently arrested the two, who pleaded guilty to the charges (Carpenter 2004, 6).

On November 20, Lawrence and Garner were convicted by Justice of the Peace Mike Parrott, after which the plaintiffs began a legal crusade to challenge the constitutionality of the Texas statute. The first test case was heard by a Texas Criminal Court, which was asked to dismiss the charges based on the equal protection and due process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment. When the Criminal Court upheld the lower court’s decision, the plaintiffs went to the Texas 14th Court of Appeals, which initially ruled in the appellants’ favor. On November 4, 1999, the Criminal Court ruled that the state’s Homosexual Conduct Law violated the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment to the Texas Constitution.

However, on April 13, 2001, the Court of Appeals reconsidered its decision and upheld the constitutionality of the law in question on a 7-2 vote. In the process, the Court of Appeals rejected the due process and equal protection arguments presented by the appellants, who then turned to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest appellate court in the state for criminal matters. After the Court of Criminal Appeals declined a review, the appellants elevated their case to the US Supreme Court on July 16, 2002.

Issue

Previous case laws held that regulation against sodomy was legal and constitutional. Lawrence v. Texas presented before the US Supreme Court the following key questions:

  1. Does the Homosexual Conduct Law of Texas, which criminalizes sexual intimacy between same-sex couples but not between couples of different genders, violate the equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment?
  2. Whether the criminal conviction of the petitioners for adult consensual sex in a private residence was a violation of their right to privacy and liberty as protected under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (Tribe 2004, 7).
  3. With some states, such as Massachusetts, already allowing full marriage rights to same-sex couples to accommodate culture change, is it not time to relax the laws on same-sex sexuality?
  4. Should the Court now reverse itself on Bowers v. Hardwick, in which it upheld the constitutionality of Georgia’s sodomy law after seeing no constitutional protection for sexual privacy?

Decision

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court voted 6-3 to strike down the Texas law. Five of these six justices held that the petitioners’ conviction violated the due process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment, while the other justice declared that it denied petitioners their right to equal protection. The Court in effect reversed its 1986 decision on Bowers v. Hardwick, saying: “Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today. This case should not remain as a binding precedent and hence, should be and is now overruled (Karlan 2004).” In Bowers, the Court had ruled that there was no constitutional “right to privacy.”

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The majority opinion was penned by Justice Anthony Kennedy, with Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sandra Day O’Connor concurring. Justice Kennedy devoted much of the opinion questioning the court findings in Bowers v. Hardwick, which declared that homosexual sodomy is a “widely and historically condemned practice.” The earlier court decision on this case was hinged on the argument raised in Dudgeon v. the United Kingdom, which was heard by the European Court of Human Rights in 1981, that Western civilization had always condemned homosexuality.

According to Kennedy, this blanket citation of the values of “Western civilization” has served to demonize homosexual conduct (Tribe 2004, 13). In overruling Bowers v. Hardwick, the High Court acknowledged that it had earlier viewed the liberty interest too narrowly and thus now declared that intimate consensual sexual conduct was part of the liberty protected by the due process clause under the Fourteenth Amendment. In effect, the Court decision invalidated laws in at least 12 states that criminalize sodomy between consenting same-sex adults doing so in the privacy of their homes. It also forbids the application of sodomy laws to heterosexual acts when these are based solely on moral concerns.

The majority decision argued that “the intimate, adult consensual conduct at issue here was part of the liberty protected by the substantive component of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process protections.” In declaring the Texas statute on sodomy unconstitutional, the Court said no other interests of the state no matter how legitimate can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual.

Kennedy’s opinion gave consenting adults the right to have sex based on their intimacy and relationship, not on the conduct traditionally protected by society (as in Bowers v. Hardwick), whether it is procreative (as in Roe v. Wade), or it is conducted by married people (as in Griswold v. Connecticut). Lawrence v. Texas thus opened the floodgates in theory to protection on a wide range of sexual acts between consenting adults not protected by other decisions

Reasoning

Citing substantive due process, the Court stated that the Texas statute violated an individual’s right to intimate conduct in a relationship, in which the state had no right to intrude. The Court reasoned that the said statute violated the doctrine of the due process clause by criminalizing such intimate conduct, while it goes against the grain of the equal protection doctrine by specifying status or same-sex lovers for this conduct. This invokes the Court decision in the watershed case, Loving v. Virginia, in which the due process and equal protection doctrines were used as arguments against racism.

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Justice O’Connor in her concurring opinion rested her decision solely on the equal protection clause, holding that sodomy is objectionable not only for homosexuals but also for heterosexuals. In fact, O’Connor said were she to vote on Bowers again, she would uphold the same. For the above reason, O’Connor believed there was no inconsistency between her concurrence in Lawrence and Bowers (Karlan 2004). Bowers v. Hardwick was the case precedent allowing anti-sodomy laws that were effectively overturned by Lawrence.

However, the Court stopped short of defining sodomy as a specific and fundamental right (Karlan 2004, 11). By thus declining to define intimate, private conduct as a fundamental right, the Supreme Court would not advance the legal status of homosexuals. The Texas statute was deemed unconstitutional only on the grounds of substantive due process. In deciding that the liberty interest was viewed too narrowly in Bowers, the Court in Lawrence said that intimate consensual sexual conduct was part of the civil liberties protected by the substantive due process clause under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Citations in support of the Judgment

  • Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965) – the Court strikes down a state law prohibiting the use of contraceptives, saying it violates the right to “marital privacy,” which is protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. (1967) – the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 in Virginia was declared unconstitutional in this landmark civil rights case.
  • Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973) – the Court declares the legality of abortion, noting that most anti-abortion laws in the US violates the right to privacy under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • Casey v. Planned Parenthood, 505 U.S. 833 (1992) – this challenged the constitutionality of state regulations related to abortion.
  • Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 1986) – the Court upheld the constitutionality of a sodomy law in Georgia that criminalizes oral and anal sex between consenting adults even if performed in private.

Rule of Law

Under the common law adopted from Great Britain during the American Revolution, sodomy and fornication were viewed as immoral, even evil, when performed outside the bounds of marriage. This law had been embodied in the statutes of several American states, which essentially criminalizes any sexual activity conducted outside the marital bed by anyone whether male or female, adult or minor (Hunter 2004). However, there are specific provisions in the common and statutory laws that allowed such activities as long as these were done in private. Thus, notwithstanding the existence of sodomy laws, few cases of sodomy and fornication were ever brought to court.

A basic problem is that there had been no single legal definition of sodomy since the 1800s. Generally, it was defined as a “crime against nature” but some state courts ruled that it applied only to anal sex, while other states maintained that their sodomy prohibition included oral sex. The punishments often meted ranged from fines to long prison sentences, and some states even went so far as to deprive offenders some basic civil rights such as the right to vote. In several states, sodomy laws were incorporated into eugenics legislations that frowned on unnatural sexual preferences. In Connecticut, for example, the state denied at least one driver’s license to a man for being an admitted homosexual in 1970.

The constitutionality of laws relating to gays was first attacked by sex researcher Alfred Kinsey and was picked up by the growing homosexual rights movement in America in the 1950s. In 1961, some sectors of the legal profession began to join the clamor through the American Law Institute, which signified a desire to craft a new Model Penal Code that changes attitudes toward sodomy when such an act is done in private and between consensual adults. A few years elapsed before the American Civil Liberties Union took a position against these laws. The first state judge to take a sympathetic view was Indiana Supreme Court Justice Amos Jackson, who wrote a dissent in 1964 criticizing the state’s sodomy law.

By this time, attitudes toward sexual relations, marriage, sexual orientation, and the role of women had began to change, as safe and effective birth control devices and medicines became commonplace. This can be gleaned from new divorce laws that liberalize the dissolution of marriages and the increasing statistics on the number of live-in partners. The so-called sexual revolution also gave way to society’s growing acceptance of same-sex relationships such that many states had started to repeal their sodomy laws in the 1970s and then to allow same-sex marriages.

Dissenting Opinion

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the dissenting opinion in Lawrence, with the concurrence of Justice Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William Rehnquist himself. Warning that the majority decision could open the door for the legalization of gay marriages, the dissent said it ignored morality as sufficient justification for regulating human behaviors. Justice Scalia then admonished the Court for selling out to the “homosexual agenda.” With the overturning of Bowers v. Hardwick, Scalia said the legality and wisdom of many decisions from lower courts based on this case were now open to question. These decisions included:

  1. Williams v. Pryor, which upheld the prohibition on the sale of sex toys in Alabama,
  2. Milner v. Apfel, which declared that legislation against immoral acts is permissible,
  3. Homes v. California Army National Guard, which ruled against the military enlistment of persons who engage in homosexual conduct, and
  4. Owens v. Maryland, which held that it is not a constitutional right to engage in sexual intercourse outside of marriage (Hunter 2004, 9).

Reference List

Carpenter, Dale. 2004. The Unknown Past of Lawrence v. Texas. 102 Michigan Law Review 1464.

Hunter, Nan D. 2004. Living with Lawrence. Minnesota Law Review, 88:1104.

Karlan, Pamela S. 2004. Loving Lawrence. Michigan Law Review.

Tribe, Laurence H. 2004. Lawrence v. Texas: The Fundamental Right that Dares not Speak Its Name. Harvard Law Review, 117:1894-95.

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