Lawrence v. Texas
539 U.S. 558 (2003)
[Majority: Kennedy, Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer. Concurring: O’Connor. Dissenting: Scalia, Rehnquist (C.J.), and Thomas.]
Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court.
Liberty protects the person from unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places. In our tradition the State is not omnipresent in the home. And there are other spheres of our lives and existence, outside the home, where the State should not be a dominant presence. Freedom extends beyond spatial bounds. Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct. The instant case involves liberty of the person both in its spatial and more transcendent dimensions.
- The question before the Court is the validity of a Texas statute making it a crime for two persons of the same sex to engage in certain intimate sexual conduct.
In Houston, Texas, officers of the Harris County Police Department were dispatched to a private residence in response to a reported weapons disturbance. They entered an apartment where one of the petitioners, John Geddes Lawrence, resided. The right of the police to enter does not seem to have been questioned. The officers observed Lawrence and another man, Tyron Garner, engaging in a sexual act. The two petitioners were arrested, held in custody over night, and charged and convicted before a Justice of the Peace.
The complaints described their crime as “deviate sexual intercourse, namely anal sex, with a member of the same sex (man).” The applicable state law is Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 21.06(a) (2003). It provides: “A person commits an offense if he engages in deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex.” The statute defines “[d]eviate sexual intercourse” as follows:
(A) any contact between any part of the genitals of one person and the mouth or anus of another person; or
(B) the penetration of the genitals or the anus of another person with an object. . . .
The petitioners were adults at the time of the alleged offense. Their conduct was in private and consensual.
- We conclude the case should be resolved by determining whether the petitioners were free as adults to engage in the private conduct in the exercise of their liberty under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. For this inquiry we deem it necessary to reconsider the Court’s holding in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986).
There are broad statements of the substantive reach of liberty under the Due Process Clause in earlier cases; but the most pertinent beginning point is our decision in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965).
In Griswold the Court invalidated a state law prohibiting the use of drugs or devices of contraception and counseling or aiding and abetting the use of contraceptives. The Court described the protected interest as a right to privacy and placed emphasis on the marriage relation and the protected space of the marital bedroom.
After Griswold it was established that the right to make certain decisions regarding sexual conduct extends beyond the marital relationship. In Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), the Court invalidated a law prohibiting the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried persons. The case was decided under the Equal Protection Clause, but with respect to unmarried persons, the Court went on to state the fundamental proposition that the law impaired the exercise of their personal rights. It quoted from the statement of the Court of Appeals finding the law to be in conflict with fundamental human rights, and it followed with this statement of its own:
It is true that in Griswold the right of privacy in question inhered in the marital relationship. . . . If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.
The opinions in Griswold and Eisenstadt were part of the background for the decision in Roe v. Wade (1973). . . . Roe recognized the right of a woman to make certain fundamental decisions affecting her destiny and confirmed once more that the protection of liberty under the Due Process Clause has a substantive dimension of fundamental significance in defining the rights of the person.
In Carey v. Population Services Int’l. (1977), the Court confronted a New York law forbidding sale or distribution of contraceptive devices to persons under 16 years of age. Although there was no single opinion for the Court, the law was invalidated. Both Eisenstadt and Carey, as well as the holding and rationale in Roe, confirmed that the reasoning of Griswold could not be confined to the protection of rights of married adults. This was the state of the law with respect to some of the most relevant cases when the Court considered Bowers.
The facts in Bowers had some similarities to the instant case. A police officer, whose right to enter seems not to have been in question, observed Bowers, in his own bedroom, engaging in intimate sexual conduct with another adult male. The conduct was in violation of a Georgia statute making it a criminal offense to engage in sodomy. . . .
The Court began its substantive discussion in Bowers as follows: “The issue presented is whether the Federal Constitution confers a fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy and hence invalidates the laws of the many States that still make such conduct illegal and have done so for a very long time.” That statement, we now conclude, discloses the Court’s own failure to appreciate the extent of the liberty at stake. To say that the issue in Bowers was simply the right to engage in certain sexual conduct demeans the claim the individual put forward, just as it would demean a married couple were it to be said marriage is simply about the right to have sexual intercourse. The laws involved in Bowers and here are, to be sure, statutes that purport to do no more than prohibit a particular sexual act. Their penalties and purposes, though, have more far-reaching consequences, touching upon the most private human conduct, sexual behavior, and in the most private of places, the home. The statutes do seek to control a personal relationship that, whether or not entitled to formal recognition in the law, is within the liberty of persons to choose without being punished as criminals.
This, as a general rule, should counsel against attempts by the State, or a court, to define the meaning of the relationship or to set its boundaries absent injury to a person or abuse of an institution the law protects. It suffices for us to acknowledge that adults may choose to enter upon this relationship in the confines of their homes and their own private lives and still retain their dignity as free persons. When sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring. The liberty protected by the Constitution allows homosexual persons the right to make this choice.
Having misapprehended the claim of liberty there presented to it, and thus stating the claim to be whether there is a fundamental right to engage in consensual sodomy, the Bowers Court said: “Proscriptions against that conduct have ancient roots.” In academic writings, and in many of the scholarly amicus briefs filed to assist the Court in this case, there are fundamental criticisms of the historical premises relied upon by the majority and concurring opinions in Bowers. We need not enter this debate in the attempt to reach a definitive historical judgment, but the following considerations counsel against adopting the definitive conclusions upon which Bowers placed such reliance.
At the outset it should be noted that there is no longstanding history in this country of laws directed at homosexual conduct as a distinct matter. Beginning in colonial times there were prohibitions of sodomy derived from the English criminal laws passed in the first instance by the Reformation Parliament of 1533. The English prohibition was understood to include relations between men and women as well as relations between men and men. 19th-century commentators similarly read American sodomy, buggery, and crime-against-nature statutes as criminalizing certain relations between men and women and between men and men. . . . Thus early American sodomy laws were not directed at homosexuals as such but instead sought to prohibit nonprocreative sexual activity more generally. This does not suggest approval of homosexual conduct. It does tend to show that this particular form of conduct was not thought of as a separate category from like conduct between heterosexual persons.
Laws prohibiting sodomy do not seem to have been enforced against consenting adults acting in private. A substantial number of sodomy prosecutions and convictions for which there are surviving records were for predatory acts against those who could not or did not consent, as in the case of a minor or the victim of an assault. . . . Instead of targeting relations between consenting adults in private, 19th-century sodomy prosecutions typically involved relations between men and minor girls or minor boys, relations between adults involving force, relations between adults implicating disparity in status, or relations between men and animals.
To the extent that there were any prosecutions for the acts in question, 19th-century evidence rules imposed a burden that would make a conviction more difficult to obtain even taking into account the problems always inherent in prosecuting consensual acts committed in private. Under then-prevailing standards, a man could not be convicted of sodomy based upon testimony of a consenting partner, because the partner was considered an accomplice. A partner’s testimony, however, was admissible if he or she had not consented to the act or was a minor, and therefore incapable of consent. The rule may explain in part the infrequency of these prosecutions. In all events that infrequency makes it difficult to say that society approved of a rigorous and systematic punishment of the consensual acts committed in private and by adults. The longstanding criminal prohibition of homosexual sodomy upon which the Bowers decision placed such reliance is as consistent with a general condemnation of nonprocreative sex as it is with an established tradition of prosecuting acts because of their homosexual character. . . .
[F]ar from possessing “ancient roots,” American laws targeting same-sex couples did not develop until the last third of the 20th century. The reported decisions concerning the prosecution of consensual, homosexual sodomy between adults for the years 1880–1995 are not always clear in the details, but a significant number involved conduct in a public place.
It was not until the 1970’s that any State singled out same-sex relations for criminal prosecution, and only nine States have done so. . . . [Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma and Tennessee.] Post-Bowers even some of these States did not adhere to the policy of suppressing homosexual conduct. [Citing four state decisions finding the statutes violated state constitutions and action by the Nevada legislature.] Over the course of the last decades, States with same-sex prohibitions have moved toward abolishing them. . . . [Citing the same authorities noted above.]
In summary, the historical grounds relied upon in Bowers are more complex than the majority opinion and the concurring opinion by Chief Justice Burger indicate. Their historical premises are not without doubt and, at the very least, are overstated.
It must be acknowledged, of course, that the Court in Bowers was making the broader point that for centuries there have been powerful voices to condemn homosexual conduct as immoral. The condemnation has been shaped by religious beliefs, conceptions of right and acceptable behavior, and respect for the traditional family. For many persons these are not trivial concerns but profound and deep convictions accepted as ethical and moral principles to which they aspire and which thus determine the course of their lives. These considerations do not answer the question before us, however. The issue is whether the majority may use the power of the State to enforce these views on the whole society through operation of the criminal law. “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code.” Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey (1992).
Chief Justice Burger joined the opinion for the Court in Bowers and further explained his views as follows: “Decisions of individuals relating to homosexual conduct have been subject to state intervention throughout the history of Western civilization. Condemnation of those practices is firmly rooted in Judeo-Christian moral and ethical standards.” As with Justice White’s assumptions about history, scholarship casts some doubt on the sweeping nature of the statement by Chief Justice Burger as it pertains to private homosexual conduct between consenting adults. In all events we think that our laws and traditions in the past half century are of most relevance here. These references show an emerging awareness that liberty gives substantial protection to adult persons in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex. “[H]istory and tradition are the starting point but not in all cases the ending point of the substantive due process inquiry.” County of Sacramento v. Lewis (1998) (Kennedy, J., concurring).
This emerging recognition should have been apparent when Bowers was decided. In 1955 the American Law Institute promulgated the Model Penal Code and made clear that it did not recommend or provide for “criminal penalties for consensual sexual relations conducted in private.” It justified its decision on three grounds: (1) The prohibitions undermined respect for the law by penalizing conduct many people engaged in; (2) the statutes regulated private conduct not harmful to others; and (3) the laws were arbitrarily enforced and thus invited the danger of blackmail. In 1961 Illinois changed its laws to conform to the Model Penal Code. Other States soon followed.
In Bowers the Court referred to the fact that before 1961 all 50 States had outlawed sodomy, and that at the time of the Court’s decision 24 States and the District of Columbia had sodomy laws. Justice Powell pointed out that these prohibitions often were being ignored, however. Georgia, for instance, had not sought to enforce its law for decades. (“The history of nonenforcement suggests the moribund character today of laws criminalizing this type of private, consensual conduct.”)
The sweeping references by Chief Justice Burger to the history of Western civilization and to Judeo-Christian moral and ethical standards did not take account of other authorities pointing in an opposite direction. A committee advising the British Parliament recommended in 1957 repeal of laws punishing homosexual conduct. Wolfenden Report (1963). Parliament enacted the substance of those recommendations 10 years later.
Of even more importance, almost five years before Bowers was decided the European Court of Human Rights considered a case with parallels to Bowers and to today’s case. . . . The court held that the laws proscribing the conduct were invalid under the European Convention on Human Rights. Dudgeon v. United Kingdom (Eur. Ct. H. R. 1981). Authoritative in all countries that are members of the Council of Europe (21 nations then, 45 nations now), the decision is at odds with the premise in Bowers that the claim put forward was insubstantial in our Western civilization.
In our own constitutional system the deficiencies in Bowers became even more apparent in the years following its announcement. The 25 States with laws prohibiting the relevant conduct referenced in the Bowers decision are reduced now to 13, of which 4 enforce their laws only against homosexual conduct. In those States where sodomy is still proscribed, whether for same-sex or heterosexual conduct, there is a pattern of nonenforcement with respect to consenting adults acting in private. The State of Texas admitted in 1994 that as of that date it had not prosecuted anyone under those circumstances. State v. Morales (Tex. App. 1992).
Two principal cases decided after Bowers cast its holding into even more doubt. In Casey, the Court reaffirmed the substantive force of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause. The Casey decision again confirmed that our laws and tradition afford constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education. In explaining the respect the Constitution demands for the autonomy of the person in making these choices, we stated as follows:
These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the 14th Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.
Persons in a homosexual relationship may seek autonomy for these purposes, just as heterosexual persons do. The decision in Bowers would deny them this right.
The second post-Bowers case of principal relevance is Romer v. Evans (1996). There the Court struck down class-based legislation directed at homosexuals as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Romer invalidated an amendment to Colorado’s constitution which named as a solitary class persons who were homosexuals, lesbians, or bisexual either by “orientation, conduct, practices or relationships,” and deprived them of protection under state antidiscrimination laws. We concluded that the provision was “born of animosity toward the class of persons affected” and further that it had no rational relation to a legitimate governmental purpose.
As an alternative argument in this case, counsel for the petitioners and some amici contend that Romer provides the basis for declaring the Texas statute invalid under the Equal Protection Clause. That is a tenable argument, but we conclude the instant case requires us to address whether Bowers itself has continuing validity. Were we to hold the statute invalid under the Equal Protection Clause some might question whether a prohibition would be valid if drawn differently, say, to prohibit the conduct both between same-sex and different-sex participants.
Equality of treatment and the due process right to demand respect for conduct protected by the substantive guarantee of liberty are linked in important respects, and a decision on the latter point advances both interests. If protected conduct is made criminal and the law which does so remains unexamined for its substantive validity, its stigma might remain even if it were not enforceable as drawn for equal protection reasons. When homosexual conduct is made criminal by the law of the State, that declaration in and of itself is an invitation to subject homosexual persons to discrimination both in the public and in the private spheres. The central holding of Bowers has been brought in question by this case, and it should be addressed. Its continuance as precedent demeans the lives of homosexual persons.
The stigma this criminal statute imposes, moreover, is not trivial. The offense, to be sure, is but a class C misdemeanor, a minor offense in the Texas legal system. Still, it remains a criminal offense with all that imports for the dignity of the persons charged. The petitioners will bear on their record the history of their criminal convictions. Just this Term we rejected various challenges to state laws requiring the registration of sex offenders. Smith v. Doe (2003); Connecticut Dept. of Public Safety v. Doe (2003). We are advised that if Texas convicted an adult for private, consensual homosexual conduct under the statute here in question the convicted person would come within the registration laws of a least four States were he or she to be subject to their jurisdiction. This underscores the consequential nature of the punishment and the state-sponsored condemnation attendant to the criminal prohibition. Furthermore, the Texas criminal conviction carries with it the other collateral consequences always following a conviction, such as notations on job application forms, to mention but one example.
The foundations of Bowers have sustained serious erosion from our recent decisions in Casey and Romer. When our precedent has been thus weakened, criticism from other sources is of greater significance. In the United States criticism of Bowers has been substantial and continuing, disapproving of its reasoning in all respects, not just as to its historical assumptions. See, e.g., C. Fried, Order and Law: Arguing the Reagan Revolution — A Firsthand Account 81–84 (1991); R. Posner, Sex and Reason 341–50 (1992). The courts of five different States have declined to follow it in interpreting provisions in their own state constitutions parallel to the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.
To the extent Bowers relied on values we share with a wider civilization, it should be noted that the reasoning and holding in Bowers have been rejected elsewhere. The European Court of Human Rights has followed not Bowers but its own decision in Dudgeon v. United Kingdom (2001). Other nations, too, have taken action consistent with an affirmation of the protected right of homosexual adults to engage in intimate, consensual conduct. The right the petitioners seek in this case has been accepted as an integral part of human freedom in many other countries. There has been no showing that in this country the governmental interest in circumscribing personal choice is somehow more legitimate or urgent.
The doctrine of stare decisis is essential to the respect accorded to the judgments of the Court and to the stability of the law. It is not, however, an inexorable command. In Casey we noted that when a Court is asked to overrule a precedent recognizing a constitutional liberty interest, individual or societal reliance on the existence of that liberty cautions with particular strength against reversing course. (“Liberty finds no refuge in a jurisprudence of doubt.”) The holding in Bowers, however, has not induced detrimental reliance comparable to some instances where recognized individual rights are involved. Indeed, there has been no individual or societal reliance on Bowers of the sort that could counsel against overturning its holding once there are compelling reasons to do so. Bowers itself causes uncertainty, for the precedents before and after its issuance contradict its central holding.
The rationale of Bowers does not withstand careful analysis. In his dissenting opinion in Bowers Justice Stevens came to these conclusions:
Our prior cases make two propositions abundantly clear. First, the fact that the governing majority in a State has traditionally viewed a particular practice as immoral is not a sufficient reason for upholding a law prohibiting the practice; neither history nor tradition could save a law prohibiting miscegenation from constitutional attack. Second, individual decisions by married persons, concerning the intimacies of their physical relationship, even when not intended to produce offspring, are a form of “liberty” protected by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. Moreover, this protection extends to intimate choices by unmarried as well as married persons.
Justice Stevens’ analysis, in our view, should have been controlling in Bowers and should control here.
Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today. It ought not to remain binding precedent. Bowers should be and now is overruled.
The present case does not involve minors. It does not involve persons who might be injured or coerced or who are situated in relationships where consent might not easily be refused. It does not involve public conduct or prostitution. It does not involve whether the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter. The case does involve two adults who, with full and mutual consent from each other, engaged in sexual practices common to a homosexual lifestyle. The petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives. The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime. Their right to liberty under the Due Process Clause gives them the full right to engage in their conduct without intervention of the government. “It is a promise of the Constitution that there is a realm of personal liberty which the government may not enter.” Casey. The Texas statute furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual.
Had those who drew and ratified the Due Process Clauses of the 5th Amendment or the 14th Amendment known the components of liberty in its manifold possibilities, they might have been more specific. They did not presume to have this insight. They knew times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress. As the Constitution endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Texas Fourteenth District is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
Justice O’Connor, concurring in the judgment.
The Court today overrules Bowers v. Hardwick (1986). I joined Bowers, and do not join the Court in overruling it. Nevertheless, I agree with the Court that Texas’ statute banning same-sex sodomy is unconstitutional. Rather than relying on the substantive component of the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause, as the Court does, I base my conclusion on the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
The Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment “is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike.” Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, Inc. (1985); see also Plyler v. Doe (1982). Under our rational basis standard of review, “legislation is presumed to be valid and will be sustained if the classification drawn by the statute is rationally related to a legitimate state interest.” Cleburne.
Laws such as economic or tax legislation that are scrutinized under rational basis review normally pass constitutional muster, since “the Constitution presumes that even improvident decisions will eventually be rectified by the democratic processes.” Cleburne. . . . We have consistently held, however, that some objectives, such as “a bare . . . desire to harm a politically unpopular group,” are not legitimate state interests. Department of Agriculture v. Moreno (1973). See also Cleburne; Romer v. Evans (1996). When a law exhibits such a desire to harm a politically unpopular group, we have applied a more searching form of rational basis review to strike down such laws under the Equal Protection Clause.
We have been most likely to apply rational basis review to hold a law unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause where, as here, the challenged legislation inhibits personal relationships. In Moreno, for example, we held that a law preventing those households containing an individual unrelated to any other member of the household from receiving food stamps violated equal protection because the purpose of the law was to “‘discriminate against hippies.'” . . .
The statute at issue here makes sodomy a crime only if a person “engages in deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex.” Sodomy between opposite-sex partners, however, is not a crime in Texas. That is, Texas treats the same conduct differently based solely on the participants. Those harmed by this law are people who have a same-sex sexual orientation and thus are more likely to engage in behavior prohibited by § 21.06.
The Texas statute makes homosexuals unequal in the eyes of the law by making particular conduct-and only that conduct-subject to criminal sanction. . . .
And the effect of Texas’ sodomy law is not just limited to the threat of prosecution or consequence of conviction. Texas’ sodomy law brands all homosexuals as criminals, thereby making it more difficult for homosexuals to be treated in the same manner as everyone else. Indeed, Texas itself has previously acknowledged the collateral effects of the law, stipulating in a prior challenge to this action that the law “legally sanctions discrimination against [homosexuals] in a variety of ways unrelated to the criminal law,” including in the areas of “employment, family issues, and housing.” State v. Morales (Tex. App. 1992). . . .
This case raises a different issue than Bowers: whether, under the Equal Protection Clause, moral disapproval is a legitimate state interest to justify by itself a statute that bans homosexual sodomy, but not heterosexual sodomy. It is not. Moral disapproval of this group, like a bare desire to harm the group, is an interest that is insufficient to satisfy rational basis review under the Equal Protection Clause. Indeed, we have never held that moral disapproval, without any other asserted state interest, is a sufficient rationale under the Equal Protection Clause to justify a law that discriminates among groups of persons.
Moral disapproval of a group cannot be a legitimate governmental interest under the Equal Protection Clause because legal classifications must not be “drawn for the purpose of disadvantaging the group burdened by the law.” [Romer v. Evans (1996).] . . .
Texas argues, however, that the sodomy law does not discriminate against homosexual persons. Instead, the State maintains that the law discriminates only against homosexual conduct. While it is true that the law applies only to conduct, the conduct targeted by this law is conduct that is closely correlated with being homosexual. Under such circumstances, Texas’ sodomy law is targeted at more than conduct. . . .
Indeed, Texas law confirms that the sodomy statute is directed toward homosexuals as a class. In Texas, calling a person a homosexual is slander per se because the word “homosexual” “impute[s] the commission of a crime.” The State has admitted that because of the sodomy law, being homosexual carries the presumption of being a criminal. Texas’ sodomy law therefore results in discrimination against homosexuals as a class in an array of areas outside the criminal law. In Romer we refused to sanction a law that singled out homosexuals “for disfavored legal status.” The same is true here. The Equal Protection Clause “‘neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.'”
A State can of course assign certain consequences to a violation of its criminal law. But the State cannot single out one identifiable class of citizens for punishment that does not apply to everyone else, with moral disapproval as the only asserted state interest for the law. The Texas sodomy statute subjects homosexuals to “a lifelong penalty and stigma. A legislative classification that threatens the creation of an underclass . . . cannot be reconciled with” the Equal Protection Clause. Plyler v. Doe (1982).
Whether a sodomy law that is neutral both in effect and application, see Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886), would violate the substantive component of the Due Process Clause is an issue that need not be decided today. I am confident, however, that so long as the Equal Protection Clause requires a sodomy law to apply equally to the private consensual conduct of homosexuals and heterosexuals alike, such a law would not long stand in our democratic society. . . .
That this law as applied to private, consensual conduct is unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause does not mean that other laws distinguishing between heterosexuals and homosexuals would similarly fail under rational basis review. Texas cannot assert any legitimate state interest here, such as national security or preserving the traditional institution of marriage. . . .
Justice Scalia, with whom The Chief Justice and Justice Thomas join, dissenting.
“Liberty finds no refuge in a jurisprudence of doubt.” Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey (1992). That was the Court’s sententious response, barely more than a decade ago, to those seeking to overrule Roe v. Wade (1973). The Court’s response today, to those who have engaged in a 17-year crusade to overrule Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), is very different. The need for stability and certainty presents no barrier.
Most of the rest of today’s opinion has no relevance to its actual holding — that the Texas statute “furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify” its application to petitioners under rational-basis review. (Overruling Bowers to the extent it sustained Georgia’s anti-sodomy statute under the rational-basis test.) Though there is discussion of “fundamental proposition[s],” and “fundamental decisions,” nowhere does the Court’s opinion declare that homosexual sodomy is a “fundamental right” under the Due Process Clause; nor does it subject the Texas law to the standard of review that would be appropriate (strict scrutiny) if homosexual sodomy were a “fundamental right.” Thus, while overruling the outcome of Bowers, the Court leaves strangely untouched its central legal conclusion: “[R]espondent would have us announce . . . a fundamental right to engage in homosexual sodomy. This we are quite unwilling to do.” Bowers. Instead the Court simply describes petitioners’ conduct as “an exercise of their liberty” — which it undoubtedly is — and proceeds to apply an unheard-of form of rational-basis review that will have far-reaching implications beyond this case.
- I begin with the Court’s surprising readiness to reconsider a decision rendered a mere 17 years ago in Bowers. I do not myself believe in rigid adherence to stare decisis in constitutional cases; but I do believe that we should be consistent rather than manipulative in invoking the doctrine. Today’s opinions in support of reversal do not bother to distinguish — or indeed, even bother to mention — the paean to stare decisis coauthored by three Members of today’s majority in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. . . .
Today’s approach to stare decisis invites us to overrule an erroneously decided precedent (including an “intensely divisive” decision) if: (1) its foundations have been “eroded” by subsequent decisions; (2) it has been subject to “substantial and continuing” criticism; and (3) it has not induced “individual or societal reliance” that counsels against overturning. The problem is that Roe itself — which today’s majority surely has no disposition to overrule — satisfies these conditions to at least the same degree as Bowers.
(1) A preliminary digressive observation with regard to the first factor: The Court’s claim that Planned Parenthood v. Casey“casts some doubt” upon the holding in Bowers (or any other case, for that matter) does not withstand analysis. As far as its holding is concerned, Casey provided a less expansive right to abortion than did Roe, which was already on the books when Bowers was decided. And if the Court is referring not to the holding of Casey, but to the dictum of its famed sweet-mystery-of-life passage (“‘At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life'”): That [passage] “casts some doubt” upon either the totality of our jurisprudence or else (presumably the right answer) nothing at all. I have never heard of a law that attempted to restrict one’s “right to define” certain concepts; and if the passage calls into question the government’s power to regulate actions based on one’s self-defined “concept of existence, etc.,” it is the passage that ate the rule of law.
I do not quarrel with the Court’s claim that Romer v. Evans (1996) “eroded” the “foundations” of Bowers’ rational-basis holding. But Roe and Casey have been equally “eroded” by Washington v. Glucksberg (1997), which held that only fundamental rights which are “‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition'” qualify for anything other than rational basis scrutiny under the doctrine of “substantive due process.” Roe and Casey, of course, subjected the restriction of abortion to heightened scrutiny without even attempting to establish that the freedom to abort was rooted in this Nation’s tradition.
(2) Bowers, the Court says, has been subject to “substantial and continuing [criticism], disapproving of its reasoning in all respects, not just as to its historical assumptions.” Exactly what those nonhistorical criticisms are, and whether the Court even agrees with them, are left unsaid, although the Court does cite two books. Of course, Roe too (and by extension Casey) had been (and still is) subject to unrelenting criticism, including criticism from the two commentators cited by the Court today.
(3) That leaves, to distinguish the rock-solid, unamendable disposition of Roe from the readily overrulable Bowers, only the third factor. “[T]here has been,” the Court says, “no individual or societal reliance on Bowers of the sort that could counsel against overturning its holding. . . .” It seems to me that the “societal reliance” on the principles confirmed in Bowers and discarded today has been overwhelming. Countless judicial decisions and legislative enactments have relied on the ancient proposition that a governing majority’s belief that certain sexual behavior is “immoral and unacceptable” constitutes a rational basis for regulation. . . .
What a massive disruption of the current social order, therefore, the overruling of Bowers entails. Not so the overruling of Roe, which would simply have restored the regime that existed for centuries before 1973, in which the permissibility of and restrictions upon abortion were determined legislatively State-by-State. Casey, however, chose to base its stare decisis determination on a different “sort” of reliance. “[P]eople,” it said, “have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail.” Casey. This falsely assumes that the consequence of overruling Roe would have been to make abortion unlawful. It would not; it would merely have permitted the States to do so. Many States would unquestionably have declined to prohibit abortion, and others would not have prohibited it within six months (after which the most significant reliance interests would have expired). Even for persons in States other than these, the choice would not have been between abortion and childbirth, but between abortion nearby and abortion in a neighboring State.
To tell the truth, it does not surprise me, and should surprise no one, that the Court has chosen today to revise the standards of stare decisis set forth in Casey. It has thereby exposed Casey‘s extraordinary deference to precedent for the result-oriented expedient that it is.
- Having decided that it need not adhere to stare decisis, the Court still must establish that Bowers was wrongly decided and that the Texas statute, as applied to petitioners, is unconstitutional.
Texas Penal Code Ann. § 21.06(a) (2003) undoubtedly imposes constraints on liberty. So do laws prohibiting prostitution, recreational use of heroin, and, for that matter, working more than 60 hours per week in a bakery. But there is no right to “liberty” under the Due Process Clause, though today’s opinion repeatedly makes that claim. (“The liberty protected by the Constitution allows homosexual persons the right to make this choice”); (“‘These matters . . . are central to the liberty protected by the 14th Amendment'”); (“Their right to liberty under the Due Process Clause gives them the full right to engage in their conduct without intervention of the government”). . . .
Our opinions applying the doctrine known as “substantive due process” hold that the Due Process Clause prohibits States from infringing fundamental liberty interests, unless the infringement is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. Glucksberg. We have held repeatedly, in cases the Court today does not overrule, that only fundamental rights qualify for this so-called “heightened scrutiny” protection — that is, rights which are “‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,'”. . . . All other liberty interests may be abridged or abrogated pursuant to a validly enacted state law if that law is rationally related to a legitimate state interest.
Bowers held, first, that criminal prohibitions of homosexual sodomy are not subject to heightened scrutiny because they do not implicate a “fundamental right” under the Due Process Clause. Noting that “[p]roscriptions against that conduct have ancient roots,” that “[s]odomy was a criminal offense at common law and was forbidden by the laws of the original 13 States when they ratified the Bill of Rights,” and that many States had retained their bans on sodomy, Bowers concluded that a right to engage in homosexual sodomy was not “‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.'”
The Court today does not overrule this holding. Not once does it describe homosexual sodomy as a “fundamental right” or a “fundamental liberty interest,” nor does it subject the Texas statute to strict scrutiny. Instead, having failed to establish that the right to homosexual sodomy is “‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,'” the Court concludes that the application of Texas’s statute to petitioners’ conduct fails the rational-basis test, and overrules Bowers‘ holding to the contrary. “The Texas statute furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual.”
I shall address that rational-basis holding presently. First, however, I address some aspersions that the Court casts upon Bowers’ conclusion that homosexual sodomy is not a “fundamental right” — even though, as I have said, the Court does not have the boldness to reverse that conclusion.
III. The Court’s description of “the state of the law” at the time of Bowers only confirms that Bowers was right. The Court points to Griswold v. Connecticut (1965). But that case expressly disclaimed any reliance on the doctrine of “substantive due process,” and grounded the so-called “right to privacy” in penumbras of constitutional provisions other than the Due Process Clause. Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), likewise had nothing to do with “substantive due process”; it invalidated a Massachusetts law prohibiting the distribution of contraceptives to unmarried persons solely on the basis of the Equal Protection Clause. Of course, Eisenstadt contains well known dictum relating to the “right to privacy,” but this referred to the right recognized in Griswold — a right penumbral to the specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights, and not a “substantive due process” right.
Roe v. Wade recognized that the right to abort an unborn child was a “fundamental right” protected by the Due Process Clause. The Roe Court, however, made no attempt to establish that this right was “‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition'”; instead, it based its conclusion that “the 14th Amendment’s concept of personal liberty . . . is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy” on its own normative judgment that anti-abortion laws were undesirable. We have since rejected Roe‘s holding that regulations of abortion must be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest, and thus, by logical implication, Roe‘s holding that the right to abort an unborn child is a “fundamental right.”
After discussing the history of antisodomy laws, the Court proclaims that, “it should be noted that there is no longstanding history in this country of laws directed at homosexual conduct as a distinct matter.” This observation in no way casts into doubt the “definitive [historical] conclusion,” on which Bowers relied: that our Nation has a longstanding history of laws prohibiting sodomy in general — regardless of whether it was performed by same-sex or opposite-sex couples. . . .
It is (as Bowers recognized) entirely irrelevant whether the laws in our long national tradition criminalizing homosexual sodomy were “directed at homosexual conduct as a distinct matter.” Whether homosexual sodomy was prohibited by a law targeted at same-sex sexual relations or by a more general law prohibiting both homosexual and heterosexual sodomy, the only relevant point is that it was criminalized — which suffices to establish that homosexual sodomy is not a right “deeply rooted in our Nation’s history and tradition.” The Court today agrees that homosexual sodomy was criminalized and thus does not dispute the facts on which Bowers actually relied.
Next the Court makes the claim, again unsupported by any citations, that “[l]aws prohibiting sodomy do not seem to have been enforced against consenting adults acting in private.” The key qualifier here is “acting in private” — since the Court admits that sodomy laws were enforced against consenting adults (although the Court contends that prosecutions were “infrequent”). I do not know what “acting in private” means; surely consensual sodomy, like heterosexual intercourse, is rarely performed on stage. If all the Court means by “acting in private” is “on private premises, with the doors closed and windows covered,” it is entirely unsurprising that evidence of enforcement would be hard to come by. (Imagine the circumstances that would enable a search warrant to be obtained for a residence on the ground that there was probable cause to believe that consensual sodomy was then and there occurring.) Surely that lack of evidence would not sustain the proposition that consensual sodomy on private premises with the doors closed and windows covered was regarded as a “fundamental right,” even though all other consensual sodomy was criminalized. There are 203 prosecutions for consensual, adult homosexual sodomy reported in the West Reporting system and official state reporters from the years 1880–1995. There are also records of 20 sodomy prosecutions and 4 executions during the colonial period. Bowers’ conclusion that homosexual sodomy is not a fundamental right “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” is utterly unassailable.
Realizing that fact, the Court instead says: “[W]e think that our laws and traditions in the past half century are of most relevance here. These references show an emerging awareness that liberty gives substantial protection to adult persons in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex.” (emphasis added). Apart from the fact that such an “emerging awareness” does not establish a “fundamental right,” the statement is factually false. States continue to prosecute all sorts of crimes by adults “in matters pertaining to sex”: prostitution, adult incest, adultery, obscenity, and child pornography. Sodomy laws, too, have been enforced “in the past half century,” in which there have been 134 reported cases involving prosecutions for consensual, adult, homosexual sodomy. In relying, for evidence of an “emerging recognition,” upon the American Law Institute’s 1955 recommendation not to criminalize “‘consensual sexual relations conducted in private,'” the Court ignores the fact that this recommendation was “a point of resistance in most of the states that considered adopting the Model Penal Code.”
In any event, an “emerging awareness” is by definition not “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition[s],” as we have said “fundamental right” status requires. Constitutional entitlements do not spring into existence because some States choose to lessen or eliminate criminal sanctions on certain behavior. Much less do they spring into existence, as the Court seems to believe, because foreign nations decriminalize conduct. The Bowers majority opinion never relied on “values we share with a wider civilization,” but rather rejected the claimed right to sodomy on the ground that such a right was not “‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,'” (emphasis added). Bowers‘ rational-basis holding is likewise devoid of any reliance on the views of a “wider civilization.” The Court’s discussion of these foreign views (ignoring, of course, the many countries that have retained criminal prohibitions on sodomy) is therefore meaningless dicta. Dangerous dicta, however, since “this Court . . . should not impose foreign moods, fads, or fashions on Americans.” Foster v. Florida (2002) (Thomas, J., concurring in denial of certiorari).
- I turn now to the ground on which the Court squarely rests its holding: the contention that there is no rational basis for the law here under attack. This proposition is so out of accord with our jurisprudence — indeed, with the jurisprudence of any society we know — that it requires little discussion.
The Texas statute undeniably seeks to further the belief of its citizens that certain forms of sexual behavior are “immoral and unacceptable,” Bowers — the same interest furthered by criminal laws against fornication, bigamy, adultery, adult incest, bestiality, and obscenity. Bowers held that this was a legitimate state interest. The Court today reaches the opposite conclusion. The Texas statute, it says, “furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual.” The Court embraces instead Justice Stevens’ declaration in his Bowers dissent, that “the fact that the governing majority in a State has traditionally viewed a particular practice as immoral is not a sufficient reason for upholding a law prohibiting the practice.” This effectively decrees the end of all morals legislation. If, as the Court asserts, the promotion of majoritarian sexual morality is not even a legitimate state interest, none of the above-mentioned laws can survive rational-basis review.
- Finally, I turn to petitioners’ equal-protection challenge, which no Member of the Court save Justice O’Connor embraces: On its face § 21.06(a) applies equally to all persons. Men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, are all subject to its prohibition of deviate sexual intercourse with someone of the same sex. To be sure, § 21.06 does distinguish between the sexes insofar as concerns the partner with whom the sexual acts are performed: men can violate the law only with other men, and women only with other women. But this cannot itself be a denial of equal protection, since it is precisely the same distinction regarding partner that is drawn in state laws prohibiting marriage with someone of the same sex while permitting marriage with someone of the opposite sex.
The objection is made, however, that the antimiscegenation laws invalidated in Loving v. Virginia (1967), similarly were applicable to whites and blacks alike, and only distinguished between the races insofar as the partner was concerned. In Loving, however, we correctly applied heightened scrutiny, rather than the usual rational-basis review, because the Virginia statute was “designed to maintain White Supremacy.” A racially discriminatory purpose is always sufficient to subject a law to strict scrutiny, even a facially neutral law that makes no mention of race. No purpose to discriminate against men or women as a class can be gleaned from the Texas law, so rational-basis review applies. That review is readily satisfied here by the same rational basis that satisfied it in Bowers-society’s belief that certain forms of sexual behavior are “immoral and unacceptable.” This is the same justification that supports many other laws regulating sexual behavior that make a distinction based upon the identity of the partner — for example, laws against adultery, fornication, and adult incest, and laws refusing to recognize homosexual marriage. . . .
Justice O’Connor simply decrees application of “a more searching form of rational basis review” to the Texas statute. The cases she cites do not recognize such a standard, and reach their conclusions only after finding, as required by conventional rational-basis analysis, that no conceivable legitimate state interest supports the classification at issue. Nor does Justice O’Connor explain precisely what her “more searching form” of rational-basis review consists of. It must at least mean, however, that laws exhibiting “‘a . . . desire to harm a politically unpopular group,'” are invalid even though there may be a conceivable rational basis to support them.
This reasoning leaves on pretty shaky grounds state laws limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples. Justice O’Connor seeks to preserve them by the conclusory statement that “preserving the traditional institution of marriage” is a legitimate state interest. But “preserving the traditional institution of marriage” is just a kinder way of describing the State’s moral disapproval of same-sex couples. Texas’s interest in § 21.06 could be recast in similarly euphemistic terms: “preserving the traditional sexual mores of our society.” In the jurisprudence Justice O’Connor has seemingly created, judges can validate laws by characterizing them as “preserving the traditions of society” (good); or invalidate them by characterizing them as “expressing moral disapproval” (bad).
Today’s opinion is the product of a Court, which is the product of a law-profession culture, that has largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda, by which I mean the agenda promoted by some homosexual activists directed at eliminating the moral opprobrium that has traditionally attached to homosexual conduct. I noted in an earlier opinion the fact that the American Association of Law Schools (to which any reputable law school must seek to belong) excludes from membership any school that refuses to ban from its job-interview facilities a law firm (no matter how small) that does not wish to hire as a prospective partner a person who openly engages in homosexual conduct.
One of the most revealing statements in today’s opinion is the Court’s grim warning that the criminalization of homosexual conduct is “an invitation to subject homosexual persons to discrimination both in the public and in the private spheres.” It is clear from this that the Court has taken sides in the culture war, departing from its role of assuring, as neutral observer, that the democratic rules of engagement are observed. Many Americans do not want persons who openly engage in homosexual conduct as partners in their business, as scoutmasters for their children, as teachers in their children’s schools, or as boarders in their home. They view this as protecting themselves and their families from a lifestyle that they believe to be immoral and destructive. The Court views it as “discrimination” which it is the function of our judgments to deter. So imbued is the Court with the law profession’s anti-anti-homosexual culture, that it is seemingly unaware that the attitudes of that culture are not obviously “mainstream”; that in most States what the Court calls “discrimination” against those who engage in homosexual acts is perfectly legal; that proposals to ban such “discrimination” under Title VII have repeatedly been rejected by Congress.
Let me be clear that I have nothing against homosexuals, or any other group, promoting their agenda through normal democratic means. Social perceptions of sexual and other morality change over time, and every group has the right to persuade its fellow citizens that its view of such matters is the best. That homosexuals have achieved some success in that enterprise is attested to by the fact that Texas is one of the few remaining States that criminalize private, consensual homosexual acts. But persuading one’s fellow citizens is one thing, and imposing one’s views in absence of democratic majority will is something else. I would no more require a State to criminalize homosexual acts — or, for that matter, display any moral disapprobation of them — than I would forbid it to do so. What Texas has chosen to do is well within the range of traditional democratic action, and its hand should not be stayed through the invention of a brand-new “constitutional right” by a Court that is impatient of democratic change. It is indeed true that “later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress,” and when that happens, later generations can repeal those laws. But it is the premise of our system that those judgments are to be made by the people, and not imposed by a governing caste that knows best.
One of the benefits of leaving regulation of this matter to the people rather than to the courts is that the people, unlike judges, need not carry things to their logical conclusion. The people may feel that their disapprobation of homosexual conduct is strong enough to disallow homosexual marriage, but not strong enough to criminalize private homosexual acts — and may legislate accordingly. The Court today pretends that it possesses a similar freedom of action, so that we need not fear judicial imposition of homosexual marriage, as has recently occurred in Canada (in a decision that the Canadian Government has chosen not to appeal). At the end of its opinion — after having laid waste the foundations of our rational-basis jurisprudence — the Court says that the present case “does not involve whether the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter.” Do not believe it. More illuminating than this bald, unreasoned disclaimer is the progression of thought displayed by an earlier passage in the Court’s opinion, which notes the constitutional protections afforded to “personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education,” and then declares that “[p]ersons in a homosexual relationship may seek autonomy for these purposes, just as heterosexual persons do.” Today’s opinion dismantles the structure of constitutional law that has permitted a distinction to be made between heterosexual and homosexual unions, insofar as formal recognition in marriage is concerned. If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is “no legitimate state interest” for purposes of proscribing that conduct; and if, as the Court coos (casting aside all pretense of neutrality), “[w]hen sexuality finds overt expression in intimate conduct with another person, the conduct can be but one element in a personal bond that is more enduring”; what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising “[t]he liberty protected by the Constitution”? Surely not the encouragement of procreation, since the sterile and the elderly are allowed to marry. This case “does not involve” the issue of homosexual marriage only if one entertains the belief that principle and logic have nothing to do with the decisions of this Court. Many will hope that, as the Court comfortingly assures us, this is so. . . .
Justice Thomas, dissenting.[Omitted].