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Popular Topics in The Arts
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In Memoriam
In Memoriam: John Geddes Lawrence, Jr. (1943-2011)
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 12/23/11
Last updated on: 12/25/11
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John Geddes Lawrence, Jr., the lead plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case that declared sodomy laws unconstitutional, died in Houston on November 20, 2011 of complications from a heart ailment. As lead plaintiff in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), a case that is widely regarded as the most significant legal victory in the history of the gay rights movement, John Geddes Lawrence, Jr. made a crucial contribution to the cause of liberty in the United States.

The case began on September 17, 1998 when police, investigating the false report of a disturbance involving a gun, burst into Lawrence's Houston home and allegedly discovered Lawrence and Tyron Garner engaged in sexual activity. They were arrested and charged with sodomy, a class C misdemeanor in Texas that could have resulted in jail time and a $5,000 fine. The men were held in jail overnight and were each fined $200.

Although they were expected to feel grateful that they had escaped jail time, Lawrence and Garner sought the aid of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in order to appeal their conviction by challenging the constitutionality of the sodomy law.

According to a new book by Dale Carpenter, Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas, forthcoming from W.W. Norton in March, Lawrence disputed the testimony of police officers that he and Garner had had sex. As Carpenter writes in a passage quoted in Adam Liptak's New York Times obituary for Lawrence, "If the police did not observe any sex, the whole case is built on law enforcement misconduct that makes it an even more egregious abuse of liberty than the Supreme Court knew."

Whatever actually happened, the arrest infuriated Lawrence and Garner, who died in 2006. Although Lawrence had not been active in the gay rights movement, he determined to seek a measure of justice by challenging the law under which he was arrested.

The case reached the Supreme Court of the United States after the Texas Court of Appeals upheld the law as constitutional.

In a decision handed down on June 26, 2003, the Supreme Court not only declared the Texas law unconstitutional, but also rendered void all the remaining laws throughout the country that criminalized private, consensual homosexual activity.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsberg, Souter, and Stevens, wrote in the Lawrence v. Texas decision that gay men and lesbians 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." Justice O'Connor joined the five-justice majority to declare the Texas statute void in a 6-3 decision.

The Court recognized that what was at issue was not simply the prohibition of a particular sexual act, but liberty itself. Justice Kennedy wrote, "The liberty protected by the Constitution allows homosexual persons the right to choose to enter upon relationships in the confines of their homes and their own private lives and still retain their dignity as free persons."

Moreover, the Court recognized the stigmatizing effect of sodomy laws and of the 1986 decision that upheld them, Bowers v. Hardwick. Of the latter, Justice Kennedy wrote, "Its continuance as a precedent demeans the lives of homosexual persons."

The vote to overturn Bowers v. Hardwick was 5 to 4. "Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today," Justice Kennedy concluded. "Bowers v. Hardwick should be and now is overruled." In overruling Bowers v. Hardwick, the Court declared the sodomy laws of 13 states unconstitutional.

The ruling in Lawrence v. Texas has been likened to such seminal Supreme Court decisions as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and banned school segregation) and Roe v. Wade (which legalized abortion).

By acknowledging the legitimacy of gay and lesbian relationships, Lawrence v. Texas gave the glbtq movement a new credibility in debates about such issues as marriage, partner benefits, adoption, and parental rights.

Lawrence, a native of Kountze, Texas and a U.S. Navy veteran, worked as a medical technologist in Kountze and Houston hospitals until his retirement in 2009.

He is survived by his partner, Jose Garcia, as well as a brother and a sister, nieces, nephews, and other relatives and friends.

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