I attended The Legacy of Lawrence v. Texas webinar presented by Fastcase featuring speakers Paul Smith and Mitchell Katine. Mr. Smith argued the case in the Supreme Court and Mitchell Katine was the local attorney on the case. LAMBDA legal were lead attorneys in the Supreme Court case. Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 123 S. Ct. 2472, 156 L. Ed. 2d 508 (2003) was a landmark case that not only overruled Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186, 106 S.Ct. 2841, 92 L.Ed.2d 140, but stated it was the wrong decision.
The presentation started with a brief history of important cases in the LGBTQ movement, including Griswald and Bowers, leading up to Lawrence v. Texas. The Bowers ruling permitted the criminalization of intimate conduct between two consenting adults of the same sex. The LGBTQ movement focused on repealing sodomy laws, although few were prosecuted for it. These laws were oppressive to the LGBTQ community and kept people “in the closet” out of fear. Leaders in the movement needed a case where someone had been arrested and prosecuted under sodomy laws so that it could go to the Supreme Court and attempt to get the Bowers case overruled.
Mr. Smith and Mr. Katine then shared a brief overview of the state of Texas law, including Penal Code 21.06, which was passed in the 1970s. The speakers then moved to the facts of the Lawrence v. Texas case, which started in 1998 and were affected by the Penal Code of 21.06. You can read more about the case HERE. The plaintiffs pleaded guilty to the facts but contested the constitutionality of the Penal Code. In Texas, the sodomy statute was the same level of crime as not wearing a seatbelt. It was up to police officer whether to issue a ticket or take someone to jail. The arrest and jail time angered the plaintiffs enough to start a lawsuit. The defendants showed tremendous courage in pursuing the case, because if the case didn’t win in the Supreme Court, they’d have to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives because they lost in all Texas courts.
When the case was heard by the Supreme Court, Justice Day O’Connor was the only justice still serving from when the Bowers case was heard in 1986. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Plaintiffs, in a 6-3 decision. Justice Kennedy wrote opinion in Lawrence v. Texas with positive language. Justice Scalia dissented, with Justices Rehnquist and Thomas joining, stating the trajectory of the case would go to allowing same sex couples to marry, since the issue of morality was invalidated in Lawrence v. Texas.
Mr. Smith’s case binder and necktie are in Smithsonian, which I found to be a fun fact. Penal Code 21.06 is still on the books in Texas but is unconstitutional. The code hasn’t been repealed but it can’t be enforced. Plaintiffs Lawrence and Gardner have since passed away, but their legacy lives on.
Written by: Jenna Pontious, Public Services Librarian