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Lawrence v. Texas

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Lawrence v. Texas
539 U.S. 558
Decided: June 26, 2003

Lawrence v. Texas was a case decided by the United States Supreme Court in 2003, invalidating laws forbidding private, consensual sexual activities (that are not otherwise legitimately criminal) throughout the United States.[1]

Facts of the Case, and Appellate Proceedings[edit]

The dilemma in Lawrence arose when a police officer, visiting John Geddes Lawrence's home on an unrelated report of a weapons disturbance (which was later found to be false), accidentally observed him engaged in consensual homosexual conduct with his partner. The officer charged a violation of the Texas statute criminalizing sodomy between homosexuals. The statute made it clear that the statute only applied to homosexuals, and defined sodomy as sexual conduct per os or per anum, rather than the narrow understanding of the term in common parlance.

Upon appeal, Lawrence and his partner's argument that the Texas statute on sodomy was unconstitutional based on the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment was rejected based on the precedent Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186, which held that regulations against sodomy were legal, because they were found to affect all citizens without differentiating between homosexual and heterosexual activities.[2] Lawrence would specifically overrule Bowers.

Holding of the Majority, by Justice Kennedy[edit]

On certiorari to the Supreme Court, Justice Kennedy spoke for a majority of six Justices, in holding the law unconstitutional on the grounds of substantive due process. Kennedy defined Lawrence's rights under the Constitution at a high level of abstraction, arguing that the Texas statute violated the right to intimate conduct in an adult, consensual relationship. Such a definition of the right (accomplished without using the word "privacy," which seems the obvious doctrinal hook to Griswold) avoided defining sodomy itself as a specific & fundamental right, and instead simply stated that the state had no right to intrude upon intimate, adult & consensual relationships.

By avoiding the task of defining intimate, consensual & private conduct as a fundamental right, Kennedy certainly side-stepped strict scrutiny, forestalling the recognizing of homosexuals as a class protected by the higher standard of review—normally reserved for only race and national origin classifications. But it must be argued that Kennedy's opinion is in fact something slightly more than rational basis review, for he stated that enforcing the morality of the majority can never be the state interest advanced by a law - an earth-shattering revelation if referring to rational basis review, but not truly groundbreaking if referencing a higher level of review. Kennedy's opinion, then, is perhaps an iteration of a halfway point between the doctrines, an idea of "rational basis review with teeth," that signifies the Court's willingness to apply strict scrutiny to classifications based on sexuality, but just not yet. In that sense, the opinion is puzzling. It disallows moral legislation, but under exactly what standard of review? The answer is unclear.

While working largely within a framework of due process, Kennedy made overtures to the doctrine of the equal protection clause, suggesting that he imagines conduct (protected by the due process clause) and status (protected by the equal protection clause) in very close harmony with each other in the case of sexuality. If Kennedy imagines conduct and status as similar, and legally almost indistinguishable, he is arguably advancing the legal status of homosexuals even more than the opinion suggests prima facie. Indeed, the doctrinal dovetailing can be seen as reminiscent of the watershed case Loving v. Virginia, which blended due process and equal protection doctrines as allies against racism.[3]

This large victory for gay rights, though, is tempered by the fact that Kennedy explicitly rejects the idea that the holding of the case, or its implications, could be used as a foundation for building a case for Same-sex marriage.[4]

In reaching his opinion, Kennedy noted favorably the international trend in support of gay rights.

Concurring Opinion, by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor[edit]

Justice O'Connor concurred in the outcome of the case, but suggested an equal protection basis for the holding. Specifically, she sought to reconcile her concurrence in this opinion with her concurrence in Bowers v. Hardwick, the case which allowed anti-sodomy laws, and which Lawrence specifically overturns.

To avoid this difficulty, and reconcile the cognitive dissonance it may create, she used the equal protection clause (instead of resting the grounds on substantive due process), and deliberately avoiding using or even implying a strict scrutiny standard, O'Connor applied rational basis review to find that since Texas' sodomy law banned the practice only by gays, it classified without a compelling state interest. She argued that she would uphold Bowers again, today, since it banned sodomy outright, and not only sodomy practiced by homosexuals. In this sense Justice O'Connor furthered her opinion in Romer, by again finding an equal protection basis for protecting homosexual conduct.

Justice Scalia's Dissent[edit]

Justice Scalia filed a scathing dissent in this case. He argued that if morality is no longer sufficient justification for regulation, then Lawrence contains the dicta that "ate the rule of law." He further argued that the Court's willingness to overrule Bowers is hypocritical, considering that the doctrine of Roe v. Wade is (in his mind) significantly more flawed and less workable, blasting the Court for being unfaithful to its litmus test for overturning bad law as iterated in the stare decisis & reliance-based holding of Casey v. Planned Parenthood.[5] Scalia ended by criticizing the Court for selling out to the "homosexual agenda."

Scalia also argued that, despite Justice Kennedy's promises, the case clearly opens the door for the constitutional legalization of gay marriage. In 2015, it did.

Post-Lawrence sodomy laws[edit]

Despite being unconstitutional (and therefore unenforceable), sodomy laws are still on the books in Alabama,[6] Florida,[7] Idaho,[8] Louisiana,[9] Michigan,[10] Mississippi,[11] North Carolina,[12] South Carolina,[13] and Utah.[14] Kansas,[15] Oklahoma,[16] and Texas[17] are slightly more progressive: only sodomy between same-sex partners is still illegal. As recently as 2015, arrests were still being made in at least one US county for consensual sodomy. (Guess where?)[18]


  1. Whether Sen. Strom Thurmond's sudden death the same day is coincidental is an open question.
  2. Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186. Justice Brennan sharply dissented from Bowers, in an opinion in many ways more liberal than the holding the Court ultimately accepted in Lawrence.
  3. Pamela S. Karlan, Loving Lawrence, preliminary draft.
  4. Specifically, Kennedy states that the state may still classify on the basis of morality to regulate "an institution that the law protects." This is commonly understood to mean one thing - marriage.
  5. Casey v. Planned Parenthood, 505 U.S. 833, opinion of the Court, section III.
  6. Alabama Code § 13A-6-63
  7. Florida Crim. Code § 800.02
  8. Idaho Stat. 18-6605
  9. Louisiana Pen. Code 14:89
  10. Michigan Pen. Code § 750.158
  11. Mississippi Code § 97-29-59
  12. North Carolina Gen. Stat. § 14-177
  13. South Carolina Code § 16-15-120
  14. Utah Crim. Code 76-5-403
  15. Kansas Statutes Ann. 21-5504
  16. Oklahoma Statutes § 886
  17. Texas Penal Code Ann. § 21.06
  18. McKinney, Matt. "Arrest on unconstitutional sodomy law prompts Baton Rouge police chief to send memo to all officers".