Lawrence v. Texas

539 U.S. 558 (2003)

Quick Summary

John Lawrence and Tyron Garner (defendants) faced legal action from the State of Texas (plaintiff) for engaging in consensual sexual acts in violation of state law. The defendants argued that their convictions under this law violated their constitutional rights.

The Supreme Court considered whether a Texas statute criminalizing consensual homosexual activity was constitutional. The Court concluded that such private conduct between consenting adults is protected by the Due Process Clause, overruling Bowers v. Hardwick and invalidating the Texas statute as unconstitutional.

Facts of the Case

John Lawrence (defendant) and Tyron Garner (defendant) found themselves embroiled in a legal battle with the State of Texas (plaintiff) after police officers, responding to a reported disturbance, entered Lawrence’s home and witnessed the two men engaged in a sexual act.

This act was in violation of a Texas statute that criminalized deviate sexual intercourse, defined by the state as any contact between genitals of one person and the mouth or anus of another person of the same sex. Lawrence and Garner were arrested and held overnight, subsequently being convicted and fined for violating this statute.

Lawrence and Garner challenged their convictions, arguing that the Texas statute was unconstitutional under both the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. Their pleas were initially rejected, but the case’s significance escalated as it moved through the courts, culminating in a petition to the United States Supreme Court for review, which was granted.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Lawrence and Garner were convicted by a Justice of the Peace.
  2. They exercised their right to a new trial in criminal court where their constitutional arguments were rejected.
  3. The Court of Appeals confirmed the convictions.
  4. The case was brought before the United States Supreme Court upon petition.

I.R.A.C. Format


  • Whether the Texas statute criminalizing consensual homosexual activity violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • Whether Bowers v. Hardwick should be overruled?

Rule of Law

Liberty under the Due Process Clause extends beyond physical spaces such as homes and includes autonomy in personal decisions that encompass intimate conduct between consenting adults.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court examined whether adults have the right to engage in private consensual conduct without government interference, reassessing the Bowers decision that had previously upheld a similar sodomy law. The Court recognized that criminalizing private homosexual conduct undermines individual dignity and autonomy, which are key elements protected by liberty under the Constitution.

The majority opinion pointed out that previous cases such as Griswold v. Connecticut and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey established that certain personal decisions related to sexual conduct are part of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause. The Court also noted that historical prohibitions on sodomy were not aimed exclusively at homosexual conduct but were understood to prohibit nonprocreative sexual activity more generally.

Furthermore, such laws were rarely enforced against consenting adults in private. The Bowers decision, according to the majority, failed to grasp the true extent of liberty at stake by reducing the issue to a mere question of engaging in sodomy rather than recognizing the broader principle of personal autonomy in intimate matters.


The Supreme Court overruled Bowers v. Hardwick, declaring that the Texas statute was unconstitutional as it violated the Due Process Clause by infringing on the fundamental liberty interests of consenting adults to engage in private intimate conduct without government intrusion.

Concurring Opinions

Justice O’Connor concurred in judgment, asserting that the Texas statute could not be justified under an equal protection rationale because it criminalized behavior based on sexual orientation, which did not meet a rational basis test.

Dissenting Opinions

Justice Scalia, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Thomas, dissented, arguing that states should be allowed to legislate based on moral approval and disapproval of certain behaviors. Justice Thomas also filed a separate dissenting opinion expressing his view that although he considered the law at issue to be ‘uncommonly silly,’ he could not see a constitutional basis to strike it down.

Key Takeaways

  1. The Due Process Clause protects personal decisions related to intimate conduct between consenting adults.
  2. Bowers v. Hardwick was overruled, removing precedent for criminalizing private homosexual conduct.
  3. The case reinforced the principle that morality alone does not justify legislation infringing on personal liberties protected by the Constitution.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What are the limits of personal liberty in private matters under the Due Process Clause?

Personal liberty in private matters under the Due Process Clause is extensive but not absolute. It typically safeguards consensual adult activities that do not harm others or public morals. Governmental intrusion is limited, especially within the privacy of one’s home, unless a compelling state interest dictates regulation.

  • For example: While individuals have the freedom to consume alcohol privately, this liberty does not extend to driving under the influence, where it poses a public safety concern.

How does equal protection under the law apply to sexual orientation?

The principle of equal protection mandates that laws must apply equally to all and prohibits discrimination based on arbitrary classifications such as sexual orientation. This necessitates that any differential treatment must pass a relevant scrutiny test, typically at least a rational basis review.

  • For example: A law that provides different ages of consent based on sexual orientation would likely violate equal protection tenets as it unjustifiably discriminates between heterosexual and homosexual individuals.

In what ways can moral disapproval by society impact the constitutionality of legislation?

Moral disapproval alone is not a sufficient justification for legislation that infringes on individual liberties protected by the Constitution. Laws must have a legitimate governmental purpose that goes beyond mere moral condemnation and comply with principles of justice and legal standards.

  • For example:laws prohibiting theft are not based solely on moral disapproval but also on preserving property rights and ensuring societal order.


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