Lawrence v. Texas: Case Brief & Summary

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

''Lawrence v. Texas'' is a Supreme Court case from 2003 which discusses the equal protection clause in the context of sexual conduct. In this lesson, we will learn about the case and the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Fourteenth Amendment

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution includes the phrase ''No State shall make or enforce any law which shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.'' This short phrase has been tremendously important to the history of civil rights in the United States. Equal protection is the right to have a law apply to everyone the same, without discrimination. It was originally intended as part of the post-Civil War changes, written in order to guarantee that former slaves could not be treated different under the law. Over time, it has been used to explain that women could not be treated differently in the workplace or in athletics, to create a foundation for the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and more recently, to rule that many laws discriminating against homosexual persons are unconstitutional.

The Fourteenth Amendment also includes the phrase ''nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.'' The concept of due process is also very important, particularly in criminal matters. It requires that a certain process must occur before a law can infringe on your rights. For example, you are arrested, booked, have your crimes identified by a judge, and so forth, before going to trial. This amendment has often been applied to cases where a person is not given his or her proper rights when being held for questioning, during a criminal trial, or when he or she is unfairly discriminated against by the laws of a state or the Federal Government.

Lawrence v. Texas Case Background

In 2003, the Supreme Court heard one of its most important gay rights cases, Lawrence v. Texas. This landmark decision overturned the Court's 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick (478 U.S. 186), which held that states had the right to create and enforce anti-sodomy laws, thus criminalizing homosexual sexual conduct. Based on the decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, the state of Texas had the constitutional authority to enforce a law that made some same-sex sexual activities illegal.

In this case, Lawrence was engaged in consensual sexual activity with Garner, another petitioner, when the police arrived to investigate an unrelated crime and found them together. The two adult men were arrested for violating the sexual conduct law. The Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to their conviction, in part because the sexual conduct law clearly was written to only criminalize certain activities when they occurred with same-sex, not different-sex, couples.

The decision in Bowers v. Hardwick turned on the notion that historically, there had been many examples of anti-sodomy legislation in the United States and elsewhere and had been upheld over time. In Lawrence v. Texas, the justices took issue with that generalization. They noted that the historical examples of anti-sodomy laws were enforced when one of the two people involved was a minor and/or did not consent, as in cases of rape and molestation. This case involved two adults, who were both willing participants. Did this particular law, then, unfairly discriminate against gay couples and violate their Fourteenth Amendment rights?

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