Supreme Court Hears Lambda Legal’s Case Challenging Texas’s ‘Homosexual
Legal Defense and Education Fund, March 26, 2003
At the Supreme Court in Washington:
Eric Ferrero: 888/987-1984 (pgr)
Lisa Hardaway: 888/987-1971(pgr)
In New York:
Fred Shank: 212/809-8585, x267
Washington—The U.S. Supreme Court today hears oral
arguments in Lambda Legal’s case challenging the constitutionality of
Texas’s “Homosexual Conduct” law, which criminalizes oral and anal sex
by consenting gay couples and is used widely to justify discrimination against
lesbians and gay men.
“This is the most important gay rights case in a
generation,” said Ruth Harlow, Legal Director at Lambda Legal and lead
counsel on the case. “We’re hopeful that the Supreme Court sees that laws
like Texas’s violate fundamental American freedoms. These laws invade the
most private area of adult life and set up two different rules for the same
behavior—one for gay people and one for straight people.”
Lambda Legal represents John Lawrence and Tyron Garner,
who were arrested in Lawrence’s Houston home and jailed overnight after
officers responding to a false report from an acquaintance found the men
engaged in private, consensual sex. Once convicted, they were forced to pay
fines and are now considered sex offenders in several states.
In defending the sodomy law, the state of Texas argues
that its legislature is responsible for passing or repealing laws and that the
Supreme Court should not step in. “While the legislature does have a great
deal of discretion over the state’s laws, there are some important
limitations—and they’re spelled out in our Constitution,” Harlow said.
“Our system gives the federal courts the responsibility to determine whether
laws are constitutional.”
The Supreme Court agreed to hear two constitutional
issues in Lambda Legal’s case—whether the Texas law violates the
Constitution’s right to privacy, and also whether it violates the
Constitution’s guarantee that all Americans will be treated equally under
the law. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that Georgia’s law banning
consensual sodomy did not violate privacy rights. In bringing the Texas case,
Lambda Legal asked the justices to reconsider that ruling, which Harlow said
has done “tremendous harm” to gay Americans for years.
“Since 1986, the nation has steadily moved away from
these laws,” Harlow said. “Society’s knowledge about gay people, gay
families and gay lives has increased exponentially since 1986, and we believe
a more informed view of constitutional protections for gay people can now
Since the U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding
Georgia’s sodomy law in 1986, Lambda Legal has helped strike down similar
laws in numerous state courts, including Montana, Tennessee and Georgia
itself. Last summer, Lambda Legal successfully struck down Arkansas’ law
banning sex between people of the same sex when the state Supreme Court ruled
in favor of seven Lambda Legal clients who said the law jeopardized their
employment, their legal relationships with their children and their standing
as equal citizens.
In addition to Texas, three states—Kansas, Missouri and
Oklahoma—still have consensual sodomy laws that apply only to gay people.
Nine states—Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina,
South Carolina, Virginia and Utah—still have consensual sodomy laws that
apply to straight and gay adults, but are invoked only against lesbians and
gay men in everyday life. These laws typically ban oral and anal sex with
penalties that range from fines to 10 years in prison.
A diverse array of some of the nation’s most respected
organizations—including conservative groups, civil rights organizations,
religious groups, historians and health professionals—filed
friend-of-the-court briefs on Lambda Legal’s behalf, also asking the U.S.
Supreme Court to declare the Texas law unconstitutional.
“Some of the most diverse and respected voices in this
country have lined up to tell the Supreme Court that these laws are contrary
to American values,” Harlow said. “Conservative groups have come forward
to say that the government has no business in people’s bedrooms. Mainstream
civil rights organizations have spoken out about the inequalities and blatant
discrimination these laws create. And our nation’s leading health advocates
have said unequivocally that these laws don’t serve any public interest.”
A decision in the case is expected in June. Lambda Legal
attorneys Ruth Harlow, Patricia Logue and Susan Sommer, along with Brian Chase
in Lambda Legal’s Dallas office, are litigating the case. William M.
Hohengarten, Paul M. Smith, Daniel Mach and Sharon McGowan from Jenner &
Block, LLC in Washington, D.C., and Mitchell Katine from Williams, Birnberg
& Andersen, L.L.P. in Houston, are Lambda Legal’s cooperating attorneys
assisting on the case. For more background, go to Lambda Legal’s web
resource center on the case at www.LambdaLegal.org/MakingHistory.
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