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National NOW Times >> Fall 2003 >> Article

Supreme Court Rules on Landmark Cases

by Michele Keller, Web Editor and Shana Taylor, Legal Intern

On the day the Supreme Court announced its groundbreaking Lawrence v. Texas decision, celebrations were held across the country. Here, Chicago NOW Secretary Meghan Streit speaks at a rally that was featured in the local press.
On the day the Supreme Court announced its groundbreaking Lawrence v. Texas decision, celebrations were held across the country. Here, Chicago NOW Secretary Meghan Streit speaks at a rally that was featured in the local press. Photo courtesy of Veronica Arreola

The Supreme Court recently ruled on two cases with sweeping ramifications for lesbian and gay rights, civil rights, and racial and ethnic diversity in higher education.

Lawrence v. Texas: A Resounding Victory for LGBT Rights

In a landmark 6-3 ruling announced on June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Texas sodomy law and overruled a similar Georgia law, affirming the constitutional right to privacy. The case was brought by John Lawrence and Tyron Garner, who were arrested and convicted under the Texas sodomy law after sheriff's deputies, responding to a false report of an armed intruder, burst into Lawrence's home. The men challenged the statute on grounds that it violates their Constitutional right to privacy and their right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Court considered three issues: whether sodomy laws like those in Texas–under which the same sexual act would be illegal for same-sex couples but legal for opposite-sex couples–violate the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection; whether it was a violation of the 14th Amendment's due-process clause to arrest people for consensual intimacy in a private home; and whether Bowers v. Hardwick, which upheld Georgia's sodomy law on the basis of traditional morality, should be overruled.

Feminists and other advocates of equal rights applauded the ruling as a clear victory, particularly because a majority of the justices used the right to privacy as the basis of the decision. "States have no business snooping into, much less busting into, the bedrooms of consenting adults," NOW President Kim Gandy said.

Gandy noted that though six justices voted to overturn the law, only five supported the right to privacy as the basis of the decision—a reminder of the Court's delicate balance and what is at stake with the next resignation from the Court. "If such a vacancy is filled by a justice in the mold of Antonin Scalia—who in his dissent compared homosexuality with bestiality and incest, and criticized the majority for siding with a 'so-called homosexual agenda'—civil rights and women's rights will be set back for decades." For more on Scalia, click here.

The U. of Michigan Cases: A Split Decision on Affirmative Action

Three days before announcing the Lawrence v. Texas decision, the Supreme Court issued a ruling on the affirmative action policies in two cases challenging the admissions programs at the University of Michigan undergraduate program and the University of Michigan law school.

In 1978, the Court had ruled in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that a school couldn't use quotas, but could take race and ethnicity into account with admissions programs "narrowly tailored" to achieve educational diversity.

The Supreme Court considered whether the two University of Michigan programs were flexible enough to provide each applicant with the "individualized consideration" necessary to withstand constitutional challenge:

  • Gratz v. Bollinger focused on the university's undergraduate admissions program, which awarded points to applicants based on grades, test scores, curriculum strength, geography, leadership and other factors, and awarded every applicant from an under-represented racial or ethnic minority group 20 points of the 100 needed to guarantee admission.

  • Grutter v. Bollinger addressed the University of Michigan Law School, which evaluated applicants based on grades, academics, athletics, children of alumni, and men enrolled in nursing programs, and considered membership in a racial or ethnic minority group as a "plus factor" in admissions.
In decisions announced June 23, the court ruled 6-3 against the "point system" in the University of Michigan's undergraduate admissions policy, but upheld the law school's admissions policy in a 5-4 decision. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said that affirmative action policies are still needed in America, though she hoped their days were numbered. "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today." Feminist leaders noted that the 5 to 4 split in Grutter is another example of the Court's delicate balance, but expressed relief that the Court specifically recognized the benefits of diversity in its ruling.

"Widespread racial and gender inequality still exist in virtually every aspect of our society, and higher education is no exception," Gandy said. "The University of Michigan policies have created opportunities, helped to overcome past discrimination, and opened avenues for learning and cultural exchange that benefit students of all races."

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