Lambda Mourns Passing of Justice Blackmun

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Former Supreme Court Justice was eloquent defender of lesbian & gay equality
March 4, 1999

(NEW YORK, March 4, 1999) -- The nation's oldest and largest gay legal group mourned the death Thursday of former United States Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, an eloquent defender of the right to privacy and impassioned voice for gay civil rights.

Lambda Executive Director Kevin M. Cathcart said, "Justice Blackmun's eloquent dissent in Hardwick set the standard for constitutional analysis of lesbian and gay civil rights. His words gave us hope that someday we would find justice in the Supreme Court."

In 1986, Blackmun wrote one of two dissenting opinions in Bowers v. Hardwick, the notorious ruling that narrowly upheld Georgia's sodomy law with an opinion rife with anti-gay rhetoric that allowed states to criminalize private, consensual sexual behavior between adults.

The 5-4 decision, which rejected the federal privacy claim of a gay Atlanta man arrested having sex with another man in his own bedroom, remains a vile symbol of anti-gay hostility and discrimination in the justice system. Lambda coordinated amicus brief filings in the case.

Urging his fellow justices to someday rise above the homophobic sentiments that characterized the majority opinion, Blackmun wrote, "I can only hope that...the Court soon will reconsider its analysis and conclude that depriving individuals of the right to choose for themselves how to conduct their intimate relationships poses a far greater threat to the values most deeply rooted in our Nation's history than tolerance of nonconformity could ever do."

In some respects, his words were heeded 10 years later in Romer v. Evans, when the Court struck down a Colorado ballot initiative that sought to prohibit gay people from receiving legal protections against discrimination anywhere in the state. Marking a decided shift in its view of lesbian and gay civil rights, the Court said in Romer that, "A State cannot so deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws."

It was not until last November 23 that Georgia's highest court struck down that state's sodomy law as a violation of the state constitution's protection for the right to privacy.

Blackmun's support for gay civil rights was in line with his passionate defense of the right to privacy and women's reproductive rights. He is best known for authoring the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that firmly established women's constitutional right to abortion.

Blackmun was appointed to the Court in 1970 by President Richard M. Nixon and served for 24 years until his retirement in 1994. Towards the end of his career, he had established himself as one of the most liberal and outspoken members of the Court. He died Thursday of complications from surgery.

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