Thursday, December 29, 2011

Remembering a Hero: John G. Lawrence

Garner & Lawrence
One of two key figures in a momentous case that is still too little discussed passed on November 20, 2011, to no public notice: John Geddes Lawrence.


The Lawrence of Lawrence v. Texas, the legal case that went to the US Supreme Court, which in 2003 ruled, in a momentous 6-3 decision written by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, in Lawrence's and co-plaintiff Tyrone Garner's favor, consequently striking down Texas's anti-sodomy laws, as well as the thirteen others still in force across the United States, thus decriminalizing all private same-sexual activity between consenting adults. This ruling invalidated the 1986 Supreme Court ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick, which had found, by a 5-4 ruling, that there was no constitutional right to private sexual behavior.  John Lawrence's and Tyrone Garner's (1967-2006) are thus two names that all Americans--for sodomy, so defined, between opposite-sex consenting adult couples, was also criminalized in a number of states--but especially all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people should know, by heart.

How did this case begin? In 1998, outside Houston, a neighbor named Robert Eubanks (who was seeing Garner at the time and who had allegedly been harassing the couple) called the police claiming to have heard violence occurring in Lawrence's apartment. The police entered the apartment and found Lawrence and Garner having sex. Although they could have left the two men alone, they arrested Lawrence and Garner, and held them overnight in jail, charging them with violating Texas's anti-sodomy statute, the Texas Penal Code's Chapter 21, Section 21.06, designated as a Class C misdemeanor anal or oral sex with a person of the same sex.

Both Lawrence and Garner pleaded no contest to the charges and were convicted, thereupon asking for their right to a new trial before a Texas Criminal Court, making the argument that the charges should be dismissed based on the equal protection grounds of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. The Criminal Court rejected this request, pleaded no contest and reserved their right to appeal, which they took up, leading them eventually to the US Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in December 2002.

And we know the outcome. Five judges voted to strike down the Texas law, averring that it violated the due process guarantees, while Sandra Day O'Connor, in a concurring opinion, found that it violated the equal protection guarantees Lawrence and Garner had cited to the Texas Criminal Court. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, joined by justices David Souter, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Stephen Breyer. Voting against the law were Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia, who, writing the main dissent, predicted that state laws against same-sex marriage, among other issues, could be struck down as well.  And we know....

Lawrence, who died in Houston, is survived by his partner, Jose Garcia.

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