Lawrence's Criminal Law

Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law, Vol. 16, p. 41, 2011

72 Pages Posted: 27 Jun 2011

Date Written: March 1, 2011


In Lawrence v. Texas, the United States Supreme Court issued a potentially revolutionary criminal law decision. When overturning its earlier ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick and holding Texas’s sodomy statute unconstitutional, the Court plainly rejected majoritarian morality as the governing criminalization theory. Instead, the Court adopted the “harm principle,” requiring that governments justify criminal laws based upon a demonstrable showing of harm. The Court also required that the lower courts, when assessing criminal laws affecting sexual behavior, do so in a sexually neutral manner. In this way, the Court rejected the heteronormative paradigm that the Hardwick decision had constitutionalized.

When applying Lawrence, however, lower courts have been remarkably resistant to the decision’s substantive criminal law doctrine. Courts continue to justify criminal statutes based upon majoritarian morality. Moreover, courts continue to apply heteronormative principles to laws governing sexual behavior in ways that cast sexual minorities into effective sexual apartheid. This article analyzes Lawrence as the groundbreaking criminal law decision that it is. Focusing on sodomy and sex toy laws, the article uses Lawrence’s underlying rationale to conceptualize a harm-based, sexually neutral approach to criminalization. The article then constructs a framework for applying Lawrence’s substantive criminal law going forward, requiring that courts assess criminal statutes under the meaningful rational basis test that Lawrence requires.

Keywords: Lawrence, criminal law, criminal law theory, harm principle, sodomy, sexual orientation

Suggested Citation

Strader, Kelly, Lawrence's Criminal Law (March 1, 2011). Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law, Vol. 16, p. 41, 2011. Available at SSRN:

Kelly Strader (Contact Author)

Southwestern Law School ( email )

3050 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90010
United States
213-738-6753 (Phone)
213-738-6698 (Fax)


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