Bowers v. Hardwick: Summary & Decision

Instructor: David White
The struggle for LGBT equality has involved a number of important and controversial court cases, including Bowers v. Hardwick. Learn about the origins of this controversial case, how it made its way to the US Supreme Court, and its outcome.

LGBT Civil Rights

On June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples could not be refused a marriage license on the basis of their sexual orientation. As much as this is a modern victory for the LGBT community and its allies, it is also part of a long line of important court decisions that have led to this point. When it comes to LGBT civil rights, the legal history has been a series of wins and losses, but few have been as controversial as the ruling in a 1986 Supreme Court case known as Bowers v Hardwick.

The marriage equality movement is part of a long line of LGBT civil rights legal battles, including Bowers v Hardwick.

Who Is Michael Hardwick?

Although it has since become a well-known case in civil rights history, Bowers v Hardwick would not have come to be were it not for Michael Hardwick's disposing of an empty beer bottle on an August night in 1982. The details of what led to his arrest has been debated, but according to Atlanta police, Hardwick was issued a citation for drinking in public, at which point, according to Hardwick, the officer wrote the wrong date on the ticket. When Hardwick failed to appear in court on the correct date, the judge issued a warrant for his arrest and officers were sent to his home a few days later.

When officers arrived at Hardwick's home to arrest him, they were invited in by Hardwick's roommate. The officers claimed to have witnessed Michael Hardwick and another man engaged in oral sex in the bedroom, and the two were arrested for violating Georgia's anti-sodomy law, which criminalized anal and oral sex between consenting partners of the same sex.

Challenging Sodomy Laws

At the time of Michael Hardwick's arrest, there were many states around the country that had similar laws banning sodomy between two consenting partners of the same sex, though they were hardly ever enforced in cases where the act took place in the privacy of one's home. In fact, following Hardwick's arrest, the district attorney declined to present the case to a grand jury, and the charges were dropped.

Under most circumstances, having the charges dismissed would be the end of the legal process for the defendant, but this was not the case for Michael Hardwick. Despite the fact that these anti-sodomy laws were rarely enforced, the gay rights movement had been actively working towards having them deemed unconstitutional and believed that Michael Hardwick's arrest was the right opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of the laws. Agreeing to act as the plaintiff in a suit against then attorney general of Georgia, Michael Bowers, the case went to trial with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) representing Hardwick.

In the early 80s, the gay rights movement had been looking for a case to challenge anti-sodomy laws in states around the country.
gay rights

Bowers v. Hardwick

When the case was brought before the district court, Hardwick stated that, while the charges against him had been dropped, as an openly gay man, he could face the same charges anytime that he engaged in a sex act with another man in the state of Georgia. The problem with Hardwick's case is that it wasn't challenging anything specific that had happened to him, only that the existing law put him and other gay people at risk of being charged. As such, the district court dismissed the charges, citing Hardwick's failure to state a claim, which means that, regardless of whether or not the facts were accurate, Hardwick's lawyers failed to provide a valid reason for the laws to be changed.

Upon appeal, Hardwick's lawyers built a new case based on the decision in the 1965 case of Griswold v Connecticut, which found that a person's right to privacy in their home is implicit in the due process clause of the 14th amendment to the US Constitution. Based on that claim, the appeals court ruled in favor Hardwick, stating that the anti-sodomy laws infringed upon his right to privacy and were therefore unconstitutional. After the Appeals Court ruling, it was Bowers who appealed the decision, at which point the case reached the final stop: the US Supreme Court.

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