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Didn’t do it. It wasn’t true

March 16, 2012

Test cases not always what they seem

In the landmark Lawrence v. Texas case where the US Supreme court ruled in 2003 that anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional, Lawrence  hardly knew Garner, the other guy. They were dressed and in different rooms on the night in 1998 when the police barged in looking for someone waving a gun. In fact Lawrence never actually did the deed for which he was charged (Review of Flagrant Conduct by Dale Carpenter, Norton, New Yorker March 12, 2012). But he was gay, and the police got confused by an explicit gay cartoon of James Dean on the wall!

Normally Lawrence and Garner would have pleaded not guilty, but campaigners needed a test case, and they were the only people, in the 12 years since the Supreme Court had previously considered anti-sodomy laws, who had actually been arrested! So, in return for admitting the offence he hadn’t committed, Lawrence got high-powered legal support all the way to the top. And the law got changed.

Rather like Roe v Wade in 1973 where the Supreme Court declared laws restricting abortion unconstitutional. A Texan woman named Norma Leah McCorvey had claimed to have been raped when she sought the abortion of her third pregnancy. When her request was turned down she found her way to two campaigning lawyers who claimed on her behalf, under the pseudonym Jane Roe, that the law was unconstitutional. Long before the case got near the Supreme Court, MacCorvey had not just admitted inventing the rape, but had delivered the baby. But by then no-one was interested, the case had a life of its own and the rest is history. Later still McCorvey claimed to have been exploited by the pro-choice lawyers and she joined campaigns for the law to be overturned.

Funny how the facts so often get lost in the legal process.

Jim Thornton

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