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January 2004


The decisions of the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas and Grutter v. Bollinger, stripped to their bare holdings, have little immediate effect on existing law. After Grutter, colleges and graduate schools will continue to take race into account in admitting students to enroll a diverse student body, just as they have done for the past quarter century in conformity with Justice Lewis Powell's opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. After Lawrence, laws against gay sex may no longer be enforced, but only a handful of states still had these laws on the books at the time of the decision, and enforcement of those laws was practically nonexistent.

However, the opinions of the Supreme Court in both Lawrence and Grutter work fundamental changes in the interpretation of our fundamental rights of liberty and equality. These legal changes both confirm and anticipate far-reaching changes in our society by recognizing certain aspects of human potential. This article describes the jurisprudential revolution that Justices Kennedy and O'Connor led in Lawrence and Grutter.

Justice Kennedy's opinion in the Lawrence case makes the following changes in the interpretation of the Due Process Clause: 1. The Right to Privacy is not defined by reference to specific American traditions, but rather by reference to society's "emerging awareness" of the effect of laws on people's private lives. 2. The Right to Privacy includes "certain intimate conduct" not because the sexual act itself usually occurs in private, but because of the central importance of sexual relationships in people's lives. 3. The Court will look to legal developments in other nations, in particular decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, in defining our fundamental rights. 4. Morality, standing alone, is not a sufficient basis for prohibitory legislation. Instead, the state must explain how behavior is harmful before it can make it unlawful. Justice O'Connor's opinion in the Grutter case, as well as her concurring opinion and Justice Kennedy's majority opinion in Lawrence, make or confirm the following changes in the interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause: 1. The level of scrutiny that the Court applies in evaluating the constitutionality of laws under the Equal Protection Clause varies with the context. Neither strict scrutiny nor rational basis is applied the same in all cases. 2. Laws that intentionally stigmatize groups are scrutinized more strictly than laws that do not. 3. Laws that inhibit people's personal relationships are scrutinized more strictly than laws that do not. 4. Moral disapproval of a group or its actions standing alone is not a sufficient reason for legislation that discriminates against the group. 5. Race-based affirmative action in university admissions is constitutional because it is necessary to train leaders from all segments of society.

Taken collectively, these developments represent a revolutionary shift in the interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. In both cases the Supreme Court embraced consequentialist reasoning, meaning that the Court focused on the effect that its decisions would have on society and on the lives of individuals. In Lawrence, the Court was primarily concerned with the stigmatizing effect of the Texas statute on gays and lesbians. The Court held that homosexuals must be treated with dignity and respect, and therefore, a law that brands all homosexuals as criminals is unconstitutional. In Grutter, the Court was strongly influenced by amicus briefs that predicted a number of deleterious social consequences that would follow from outlawing affirmative action in education. The Court upheld affirmative action in university admissions because our Nation has a compelling interest in training leaders from all segments of our society.

Both cases turn upon fundamental beliefs about human potential. Lawrence is based upon the belief that homosexual relationships are valuable and are entitled to respect. Grutter is based upon the belief that members of racial and ethnic minorities are not only capable of playing leadership roles, but that it is critical for the future of our Nation that our leaders be drawn from every race and every ethnic group. The conclusions that the Court draws about human potential in Lawrence and Grutter are not determined by the myths of our ancestors, but rather arise from a careful and sensitive analysis of how people lead their lives. This approach to interpreting the Constitution promises to achieve a more universal understanding of liberty and equality and a more comprehensive embodiment of the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Part I of this article describes the changes in the interpretation of our fundamental rights under the Due Process Clause that are contained in Justice Kennedy's opinion in Lawrence. Part II describes how the interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause is changed by Justice O'Connor's opinions in Grutter and Lawrence. The Conclusion explains the underlying jurisprudential shift that these changes represent.

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William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal

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