Powell Regrets Backing Sodomy Law
Friday October 26, 1990
By Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Retired Supreme Court justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. told a group of law students last
week that he regrets his 1986 vote upholding a Georgia statute that made homosexual sodomy
a criminal offense.
Powell, who retired in 1987, provided the fifth vote to uphold the law and reject
arguments that the constitutional right to privacy covers homosexual conduct. Powell later
acknowledged that he had initially voted to strike down the statute but then switched his
vote to join with four conservative justices in upholding it.
"I think I probably made a mistake in that one." Powell told a group of New
York University law students, according to a story prepared for Mondays edition of
the National Law Journal.
In an interview yesterday, Powell confirmed that he made the brief remarks when asked
whether there where was "any decision I made I had doubts about in retrospect."
The case, Bowers v. Hardwick, involved a Georgia man, Michael Hardwick, who was
charged with criminal sodomy with a man in his bedroom. The matter was dropped but
Hardwick then brought suit challenging the statutes constitutionality.
In rejecting his claim, Justice Byron R. White cited the "ancient roots" of
proscriptions against homosexual sodomy and the fact that it remained criminal in 24
states and the District of Columbia. Powell, in a brief concurring opinion, agreed that
"there is no fundamental right" to engage in homosexual conduct but noted that
Hardwick had not been prosecuted, "much less convicted and sentenced." Powell
said yesterday that the case was a "close call" and that his vote was based on
the fact that the statute had not been enforced for several decades. "That case was
not a major case, and one of the reasons I voted the way I did was the case was a
frivolous case" brought "just to see what the court would do" on the
subject, he said.
"So far as Im concerned its just a part
of my past and not very important," he said. "I dont suppose
Ive devoted half an hour" to thinking about the decision since it was made.
Powells reservations notwithstanding, the court seems highly unlikely to disturb its
ruling in Bowers with Powells replacement by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and
the addition of Justice David H. Souter to take the place of retired justice
William J. Brennan Jr., who was one of the four dissenters in the case. Gay rights
activists say the Bowers decision has been used to justify Sodomy prosecutions,
particularly in the military, and to reject arguments for equal protection for
homosexuals. For example, said William Rubenstein, director of the American Civil
Liberties Unions Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, Dallas police cited the
states sodomy law and the Bowers case as a basis for not allowing a lesbian
to join the force.
Powells comments, he said, are "an instance where the old axiom Better
late than never isnt true. Its good that we have his vote now. Its
too bad that its now."
But Harvard Law School professor Laurence H. Tribe, who argued the case on behalf of
Hardwick, said Powells second thoughts could undercut the moral force of the
opinion. "The fact that a respected jurist who is indispensable to the majority
conceded that on sober second thought he was probably wrong certainly will affect the way
that future generations look at the decision he said.
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