Brief Fact Summary. Locke was charged with a crime against nature and appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States on the basis that the statute was unconstitutionally vague as applied to him.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. Tennessee’s “crimes against nature” statute is not unconstitutionally vague as applied to the act of cunnilingus.
Issue. Is Tennessee’s “crimes against nature” statute unconstitutionally vague?
Held. No, The United States Court of Appeals decision is reversed.
As early as 1955 Tennessee had expressly rejected a claim that “crime against nature” did not cover fellatio, repudiating those jurisdictions which had taken a narrow restrictive definition of the offense.
The Maine statute, which the Tennessee court has twice equated to its own, has been applied to cunnilingus.
The Tennessee Supreme Court has thus given sufficiently clear notice that the statute would receive the broader of the two plausible interpretations, and would be applied to acts such as those committed here.
The traditional test of vagueness – whether the statute gives fair warning that one’s conduct is criminal – is supplanted here by a test whether there is anything in the statute “to indicated, clearly or otherwise, that respondent’s acts were outside the scope of the statute.”
How can one State Court judicially construe its otherwise vague criminal statute to include particular conduct, without explicit adoption of that State Court’s construction by the Courts of the charging state, and render an uninterrupted statute of the latter state also sufficiently concrete to withstand a charge of unconstitutional vagueness?
Discussion. The Majority reasons that since the Tennessee courts have hinted in the past that their “crimes against nature” statute should be given a broader interpretation as opposed to a narrower one, that this is sufficient to notice that the statute would receive the broader of the two plausible interpretations, and would be applied to acts like cunnilingus.