John Geddes Lawrence, the defendant in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that declared sodomy laws unconstitutional across the country, died on Nov. 20, according to an obituary posted by R.S. Farmer Funeral Home in Silsbee, Texas. He was 68.
According to the obituary, Lawrence was born in Beaumont, Texas, on August 2, 1943, served in the U.S. Navy for four years and worked as a medical technologist in Texas hospitals until his retirement in 2009.
In the facts underlying the Supreme Court case, Lawrence v. Texas, Lawrence and Tyron Garner were arrested under Texas's Homosexual Conduct Law after police entered Lawrence's home on Sept. 17, 1998, and saw them "engaging in a sexual act." The couple challenged the law as unconstitutional, Lambda Legal backed their challenge, and the couple fought it up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Jenner & Block partner Paul Smith then argued the case for Lawrence and Garner on March 26, 2003.
Three months later on June 26, 2003, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the court's opinion, holding, "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. ... Persons in a homosexual relationship may seek autonomy for these purposes, just as heterosexual persons do."
Lambda Legal executive director Kevin Cathcart talked with Metro Weekly on Friday, Dec. 23 about Lawrence, saying, "He really was the most unassuming person that I could imagine, and yet, he was a hero. Most people try to plead out and avoid publicity [with sodomy charges], it's tough to find people who want to attach their names to sodomy challenges. ... and yet, they did this amazing thing. And we all are the better for it."
Human Rights Campaign spokesman Michael Cole-Schwartz told Metro Weekly, "It's hard to believe that less than 10 years ago, gay and lesbian people could be marked as criminals just for being themselves, but because of people like John Lawrence, those days are no more in this country. To be the namesake of a legal case that continues to underpin advances for LGBT equality is a fitting tribute to John Lawrence, whose courage to stand up improved the lives of millions."
At the time the Supreme Court decided Lawrence, Cathcart told The Advocate, "Because Tyron Garner and John Lawrence had the courage to challenge homophobic sodomy laws, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that love, sexuality, and family play the same role in gay people's lives as they do for everyone else. That's a colossal legacy and one for which his community will forever be thankful."
According to Lawrence's obituary, "his dearest friend and partner, Jose Garcia," cared for him at the end of his life. Funeral services were held on Nov. 23.
According to the obituary, in addition to Garcia, Lawrence was survived by his brother, sister and her husband, two nieces and two nephews, as well as a host of grand nieces and nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. Garner had died earlier, on Sept. 11, 2006.
In concluding the Lawrence court opinion, which overturned the still-recent Supreme Court case of Bowers v. Hardwick that upheld the constitutionality of sodomy laws, Kennedy wrote an expansive defense of an evolving understanding of rights. The opinion was later used in Massachusetts and elsewhere by courts holding that same-sex couples have a constitutional basis for equal marriage rights.
"Had those who drew and ratified the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth Amendment or the Fourteenth Amendment known the components of liberty in its manifold possibilities, they might have been more specific. They did not presume to have this insight," Kennedy held. "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."
[Photo: Garner, left, and Lawrence, right. (Photo from OutHistory.org.)]
[CORRECTION AND UPDATE: This post was updated at 1:30 p.m. Dec. 23 to correct an error about Lawrence's status as a defendant in the court challenge and to add reactions to the news of his death.]