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Lawrence v. Texas

Citation. 539 US 558 (2003)
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Brief Fact Summary.

 Police found two men engaged in sexual conduct, in their home, and they were arrested under a Texas statute that prohibited such conduct between two men.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

While homosexual conduct is not a fundamental right, intimate sexual relationships between consenting adults are protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.


In Houston, Texas, Harris County Police officers were dispatched to a private home in response to a reported weapons disturbance. They entered (the right to enter does seem to have been questioned) the home where John Geddes resided, and observed Lawrence and another man, Tyron Garner, engaging in a sex act. The men were arrested, held over night and charged with violating a Texas statute making it a crime for two persons of the same sex to engage in certain intimate sexual conduct. Specifically the statute provided “A person commits and offense if he engaged in deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex” and goes on to define deviate sexual intercourse as follows: “ any contact between any part of the genitals of one person and the mouth or anus of another person or the penetration of the genitals or the anus of another person with an object”.  The two men were then convicted before a Justice of the Peace.


The issue is whether a statute prohibiting specific sex acts violates liberty under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


Yes, intimate sexual conduct, between consenting adults, is a liberty protected under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


Justice Scalia: He believes that since the court does not find homosexual sodomy to be a fundamental right, and merely describes it as an “exercise in liberty”, a rational basis scrutiny should be applied, and in doing so, the law would be upheld. In addition, the courts willingness to overturn Bowers rather than use stare decicis, is inconsistent with other case law such as Planned Parenthood, and thus, feels the court should be consistent and stable rather than being “manipulative in invoking the doctrine”. Since all laws, by definition (as example, prostitution, using heroin, etc) affect liberty, they would all be unconstitutional under this court’s ruling.


Justice O’Connor: She does not join the court in overturning Bowers, but rather, reaches her conclusion based on equal protection, rather than any due process clause.  She states that even using a rational basis review “we have consistently held that some objectives, such as a bare desire to harm a politically unpopular group, are not legitimate state interests”.   She comes to this conclusion based on the fact that sodomy is not prohibited between opposite sex partners, thus unfairly targets same sex partners and makes them unequal in the eyes of the law. Since this law brands homosexuals as criminals, it makes it more difficult for them to be treated like everyone else, thus violating equal protection and legally sanctioning discrimination.


(Written by Justice Kennedy) The court does not focus on protecting sodomy specifically, but rather, personal relationships.  It explains that despite the fact that the statutes in questions purport to only prohibit sex, “Their penalties and purposes, though, have more far-reaching consequences, touching upon the most private human conduct, sexual behavior, and in the most private of places, the home.”  The court found it alarming that the statute in question sought to control a personal relationship, stating that forming personal relationships is one of the liberties we have, and should be able to choose such relationships without fear of being punished or classified as criminals.

The court focuses on the fact that the laws should not target relations between consenting adults in private, as this is what liberty hinges on.  The court states that adults are entitled to respect for their private lives, and “Their right to liberty under the Due Process Clause gives them the full right to engage in their conduct without intervention of the government”.   The court ultimately applies a rational basis review, stating that the Texas statute in question furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify an intrusion into a personal and private life of an individual.

This case overrules Bowers v Hardwick, which had held that there is no fundamental right to engage in sodomy, or homosexual activities.  Bowers was based on the fact that historically sodomy has been outlawed, but this court finds that historically it was only outlawed to protect individuals from sexual predators, and that rationale should not be used when consenting adults are involved, specifically stating “The present case does not involve minors. It does not involve persons who might be injured or coerced or who are situated in relationships where consent might not easily be refused. It does not involve public conduct or prostitution. It does not involve whether the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter.”

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