Significance of Lawrence v. Texas [Case Brief]

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What is the significance of Lawrence v. Texas? Lots of people know about Obergefell v. Hodges (the 2015 Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage), but Lawrence paved the way and increased the civil rights of gay couples.

What is the significance of Lawrence v. Texas? Lots of people know about Obergefell v. Hodges (the 2015 Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage), but Lawrence paved the way and increased the civil rights of gay couples.

The Significance of Lawrence v. Texas

This case brief is part of my series on the Supreme Court on marriage equality.

Read the full Supreme Court opinion: Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).

Lawrence v. Texas Overruled What Previous Decision?

In Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court struck down laws that criminalized consensual, adult homosexual intercourse as a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. If you read Loving v. Virginia, some of the same logic applies to this case even if the Court didn’t cite to that case.  Lawrence essential overruled Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986).

Lawrence v. Texas Case Summary

Background in Lawrence v. Texas

On the night of September 17, 1998, John Geddes Lawrence, Jr. hosted two gay acquaintances, Tyron Garner and Robert Eubanks. Lawrence and Garner had an on-and-off sexual relationship. Lawrence and Eubanks had a 20+ year relationship.

In a fit of jealousy (and after imbibing much alcohol, which enhances such jealousy), Eubanks called the police to report “a black male going crazy with a gun.”

Responding to this disturbance, the Houston police, led by Joseph Quinn, entered Lawrence’s apartment (with some help from Eubanks). Quinn saw the pair having anal sex. A second police officer saw them have oral sex. The other two didn’t see anything. The two were arrested on a charge of deviate sexual intercourse in violation of a Texas statute forbidding two persons of the same sex to engage in certain intimate sexual conduct.

Section 21.01 of the Texas Penal Code states:

(1) “Deviate sexual intercourse” means:
(A) any contact between any part of the genitals of one person and the mouth or anus of another person; or
(B) the penetration of the genitals or the anus of another person with an object.
Something to note is that “sexual intercourse” was defined as “any penetration of the female sex organ by the male sex organ.” This may have been the reason they were not convicted (plead guilty) of that charge.

The two pleaded nolo contendere (no contest) to “homosexual conduct” of the Section 21.06 of the Texas Penal Code, which states:

(a) A person commits an offense if he engages in deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex.

Homosexual conduct was a class C misdemeanor. The lower court’s case was docketed at 98-48530 98-48531 in Harris County, Texas.

With some finagling, the judge, defense, and prosecution agreed on a $200 fine for the misdemeanor. This fine was enough to appeal.

In Lawrence v. State, 41 S.W.3d 349 (Tex. App. 2001).  The Texas Court of Appeals held that the laws were not a violation of the the equal protection and privacy guarantees assured by both the state and federal constitutions under the controlling case law, Bowers.

Lawrence’s petition to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (for criminal matters, the highest appellate court in Texas is the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals) was denied.

The United States Supreme Court then granted certiorari.

Lawrence v. Texas Holding

Justice Kennedy authored the majority opinion. Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer joined. Justice O’Connor concurred in the judgment. Justice Scalia dissented, with Rehnquist and Thomas joined. Justice Thomas wrote a separate dissent.

Justice Kennedy began the Opinion by writing:

Liberty protects the person from unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places.

It ends with:

Their right to liberty under the Due Process Clause gives them the full right to engage in their conduct without intervention of the government.

In what I consider to be a rather short Opinion, the Court invalidated every argument that the State of Texas brought: historical and stare decisis (to follow a previous Opinion’s decision).

Lawrence v. Texas Analysis

The Court analyzed this case under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Citing Roe v. Wade, the Court noted a liberty protection for people to make their own choices with their bodies. The Court specifically overruled Bowers v. Hardwick, making commentary that the previous Court got it wrong.

It then went into the history of sodomy, noting that the laws prohibiting such behavior root in a condemnation of homosexual behavior. This condemnation started around the 1970s and was “shaped by religious beliefs, conceptions of right and acceptable behavior, and respect for the traditional family.”

The Court then brought a more recent case, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), that the constitution protects personal decisions related to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education.

Next, the Court mentioned Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996), in which the Court invalidated a Colorado Constitutional amendment that deprived protection to homosexuals, lesbians, or bisexuals.

Noting that liberty in the private lives of citizens is the polestar of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court noted Stevens’ previous dissent in Bowers that case didn’t involve minors, public conduct, prostitution, or government formal recognition. It was a private act, in a private house, with two consenting adults.

Lawrence v. Texas Concurrence

Justice O’Connor based his conclusion on the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. All persons similarly situated should be treated the same. The Texas laws treat homosexual behavior differently than heterosexual behavior, and thus, violate equal protection.

Lawrence v. Texas Dissent

Justice Scalia first attacked stare decisis on a case a “mere” 17 years later. He then stated that the Court should also reverse Roe v. Wade based on the same logic. He then wrote that “laws against bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity” would similarly be invalidated.

Maureen’s Legal Bottom Line

I’ve said this on many occasions, and this Opinion basically lays it out: what people do in their own bedrooms is none of my bees wax. The long sweeping ramifications of this Opinion, are, of course, that gay marriage was legalized.

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