Bowers v. Hardwick

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Bowers v. Hardwick
Image:Seal of the United States Supreme Court.png

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued March 31 1986

Decided June 30 1986

Full case name: Michael J. Bowers, Attorney General of Georgia v. Michael Hardwick et al.
Citations: 478 U.S. 186
Prior history: Complaint dismissed, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia; reversed and remanded, 760 F.2d 1202 (11th Cir. 1985); rehearing en banc denied, 765 F.2d 1123, (11th Cir. 1985); certiorari granted, 474 U.S. 943 (1985)
Subsequent history: Vacated and remanded, 804 F.2d 622 (11th Cir. 1986)
A Georgia law prohibiting sodomy was valid because there was no constitutionally protected right to engage in homosexual sodomy. Eleventh Circuit reversed and remanded.
Court membership
Chief Justice: Warren Burger
Associate Justices: William Brennan, Byron White, Thurgood Marshall, Lewis Powell, William Rehnquist, Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor
Case opinions
Majority by: White
Joined by: Burger, Powell, Rehnquist, O'Connor
Concurrence by: Burger
Concurrence by: Powell
Dissent by: Blackmun
Joined by: Brennan, Marshall, Stevens
Dissent by: Stevens
Joined by: Brennan, Marshall
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV; Ga. Code § 16-6-2 (1984)
Overruled by
Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003)

Bowers v. Hardwick, Template:Ussc, was a United States Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of a Georgia sodomy law that criminalized oral and anal sex in private between consenting adults. Seventeen years later the Supreme Court directly overruled Bowers in the Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003) decision and held that such laws are unconstitutional. (See judicial review.)



In August of 1982, police officers entered the bedroom of Michael Hardwick to serve a summons for public drunkenness (Hardwick's roommate gave authorization for the search), where they found him engaged in oral sex with another man. They placed him under arrest for sodomy, which was defined in Georgia law to include both oral sex and anal sex. The local district attorney elected not to present the charge to the grand jury, which would have been a prerequisite to any trial or punishment for the offense. Hardwick then sued Michael Bowers, the attorney general of Georgia, for a declaration that the state's sodomy law was invalid, charging that as an active homosexual he was liable to eventually be prosecuted for his activities. Following decisions by the lower federal courts, the case ultimately reached the Supreme Court. Hardwick was represented before the Supreme Court by Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe, widely considered one of the most effective liberal constitutional law advocates in the nation.


The issue in Bowers involved the right of privacy. Since 1965's Griswold v. Connecticut the Court had held that a right to privacy was implicit in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. In Bowers, the Court held that this right did not extend to private, consensual sexual conduct, at least insofar as it involved same-sex sodomy.

The majority opinion in Bowers, written by Justice Byron White, framed the legal question as whether the constitution creates "a fundamental right to engage in homosexual sodomy." Justice White's opinion for the majority answered this question in the negative, stating that "to claim that a right to engage in such conduct is 'deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition' or 'implicit in the concept of ordered liberty' is, at best, facetious."

The majority opinion by Justice White was joined by Chief Justice Burger and Justices Lewis F. Powell, Jr., William H. Rehnquist and Sandra Day O'Connor. Justice Powell and Chief Justice Burger also wrote separate concurring opinions. Justices William J. Brennan, Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens joined Justice Blackmun's dissenting opinion. In addition, Justice Stevens wrote his own dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Brennan and Marshall.

The Concurrences and Dissents

The short concurring opinion by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger emphasized historical negative attitudes toward sodomy, quoting Sir William Blackstone's characterization of sodomy as "a crime not fit to be named." Burger concluded, "To hold that the act of homosexual sodomy is somehow protected as a fundamental right would be to cast aside millennia of moral teaching."

Opponents of sodomy laws criticized Bowers not only for its result but also because of the Court's dismissive treatment of the liberty and privacy interests of gay men and lesbians. A sharply worded dissenting opinion by Justice Harry Blackmun attacked the majority opinion as having an "almost obsessive focus on homosexual activity." Justice Blackmun suggested that "[o]nly the most willful blindness could obscure the fact that sexual intimacy is 'a sensitive, key relationship of human existence, central to family life, community welfare, and the development of human personality.'"

Lewis Powell was considered the deciding vote during the case. In a concurring opinion Powell voiced doubts about the compatibility of Georgia's law with the Eighth Amendment as it related to the prison sentence for conviction, but joined the majority opinion upholding the law against a substantive due process attack. It has been argued that Powell's decision to uphold the law was influenced by the fact that he believed he had never known any homosexuals, unaware that one of his own law clerks was gay. Three years after retiring from the Court, Justice Powell publicly said that he regretted his vote in Bowers.


Bowers was decided at a time when the court's privacy jurisprudence, and in particular the right to abortion recognized in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), had come under heavy criticism and was in doubt. In this historical context, Bowers signaled a reluctance by the then-members of the Court to recognize a general constitutional right to privacy or to extend such a right further than they already had.

Some contend that Bowers should be understood in the historical context of the AIDS epidemic, which was in a relatively early stage in 1986. In the early 1980s, the epidemic had occasioned a large amount of press coverage about homosexuality, which previously had been a taboo topic in the U.S. mass media.

State sodomy laws have seldom been enforced against private consensual conduct in recent decades, but the Bowers decision was frequently cited in opposition to gay rights programs. The Georgia law upheld in Bowers forbade oral sex and anal sex whether engaged in by people of the same sex or different sexes, but the Court's repeated use of the term "homosexual sodomy" led many to believe that the decision was limited to same-sex relations.

In the years after Bowers was decided, several state legislatures repealed their sodomy laws. In addition, a number of state courts invalidated sodomy laws under privacy or other provisions of their state constitutions. The same sodomy law that was upheld in Bowers was struck down by the Georgia Supreme Court under the Georgia state constitution in the case of Powell v. State, 270 Ga. 327 (1998). The remaining state sodomy laws in the U.S. were invalidated, insofar as they applied to private consensual conduct, in the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case of Lawrence v. Texas.

See also

External links