Lawrence v. Texas
In 1998, John Lawrence and Tyron Garner were arrested in Lawrence’s Houston home and jailed overnight after officers responding to a false report found the men having sex. The two men were convicted of violating Texas’s “Homosexual Conduct” law, which made it a crime for two people of the same sex to have oral or anal sex, even though those sex acts were legal in Texas for people to engage in with persons of a different sex. Lambda Legal quickly responded to represent Lawrence and Garner. Battling for years in the Texas courts, we sought to overturn the criminal convictions (which made the two men registerable “sex offenders” in several states) and to have Texas’s law declared unconstitutional. When the highest court in Texas eventually refused to even hear our arguments, we convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case. In a stunning victory, the highest court in the land found the “Homosexual Conduct” law unconstitutional and established, for the first time, that lesbians and gay men share the same fundamental liberty right to private sexual intimacy with another adult that heterosexuals have.
The mere existence of sodomy laws often had been used to justify wholesale discrimination against LGBT people. In striking down those laws, this historic ruling removed a major roadblock in the battle for LGBT rights. No longer can gay people be considered “criminals” because they love others of the same sex. Moreover, laws that deny gay people liberty or equal protection no longer can be justified on moral grounds alone.
Lambda Legal's Impact
The breadth of this landmark case is extraordinary. The Supreme Court declared all sodomy laws unconstitutional, putting an end to the sodomy laws that remained on the books in 13 states at the time of the ruling, including laws that criminalized only same-sexual conduct and laws that criminalized oral and anal sex irrespective of the sex of the participants. The Court also reversed Bowers v. Hardwick, its 1986 decision that upheld Georgia’s sodomy law on reasoning that had been extraordinarily harmful to gay people’s struggles both for liberty and equality. The decision’s sweeping language about gay people’s equal rights to liberty marked a new era of legal respect for the LGBT community. Lawrence v. Texas is considered the most significant gay rights breakthrough of our time.
- September 1998 Police arrest John Lawrence and Tyron Garner in Lawrence’s private apartment and charge them with having consensual sex in violation of Texas’s “Homosexual Conduct” law.
- December 1998 Motions to quash the charges against Lawrence and Garner as unconstitutional are denied by the Harris County Criminal Court. The men plead “nolo contendere,” preserving their right to pursue their constitutional challenge to the law.
- November 1999 Lambda Legal presents arguments to the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston challenging the men’s conviction.
- June 2000 Court reverses the conviction of the two men and overturns Texas’s “Homosexual Conduct” law, declaring it unconstitutional.
- March 2001 After rehearing the case, a larger panel of the Texas Court of Appeals overturns the earlier appellate ruling, upholding the men’s conviction.
- April 2002 Texas’s highest criminal court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, refuses to hear Lambda Legal’s appeal.
- July 2002 Lambda Legal asks U.S. Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of Texas’s “Homosexual Conduct” law. The case presents the high court with two independent constitutional claims that Lambda Legal urges it to review: one based on equal protection, the other based on rights of privacy and liberty.
- December 2002 U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear the case.
- January 2003 Lambda Legal files its brief urging U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Texas’s “Homosexual Conduct” law.
- March 2003 Lambda Legal presents oral arguments before U.S. Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the Texas “Homosexuality Conduct” law.
- June 2003 Victory! In landmark ruling for lesbian and gay Americans’ civil rights, U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the “Homosexual Conduct” law.
Landmark Case, Victory
John Lawrence, Tyron Garner
Brian Chase, Susan Sommer, Ruth E. Harlow
Paul M. Smith, William M. Hohengarten, Daniel Mach, David C. Belt and Sharon M. McGowan from Jenner & Block, LLC in Washington, DC; Mitchell Katine from Williams, Birnberg & Andersen, LLP in Houston