Supreme Countdown

Five Supreme Court Decisions That Changed The World For Worse And For Better

The two high-profile opinions pending release this month from the U.S. Supreme Court could end up being as historic as the Loving v. Virginia decision, which struck down laws against marriage for interracial couples in 1967.

They could be as dramatic as Roe v. Wade, which, in 1973, struck down most restrictions against abortion. And, they’re already getting as much attention now, if not more, than pending decisions on the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action.

If the Supreme Court makes definitive rulings in U.S. v. Windsor (regarding the Defense of Marriage Act) and Hollingsworth v. Perry (regarding California’s Proposition 8), the opinions will certainly warrant inclusion on any Top Ten LGBT Cases list, maybe even among the Top Five.

Here are the cases that make Queerty’s Top Five LGBT Supreme Court cases today:

1.) Lawrence v. Texas

Year: 2003

Vote: 6 to 3

Ruling: A Texas law making it a crime for two adults of the same sex to have consensual sexual relations in private violates the Due Process Clause.

Impact: The ruling not only struck down the Texas law but those in eight other states. It also put a stop to the use of various other entities –employers, the military, family courts, and others—from using the existence of the laws to justify various other forms of discrimination against LGBT people. Many believe it is the decision that most paved the way for the success of much later litigation, including on marriage, to assert equal protection rights for LGBT people.

Majority’s Notable Line (Kennedy):

“Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.”

Dissent’s Notable Line (Scalia):

“It is clear from this that the Court has taken sides in the culture war, departing from its role of assuring, as neutral observer, that the democratic rules of engagement are observed.”

2.) Bowers v. Hardwick

Year: 1986

Vote: 5 to 4

Ruling: A Georgia law making it a crime for two adults of the same sex to have consensual sexual relations in private was constitutionally permissible.

Impact: Politically and legally, Hardwick lashed out against an LGBT community that was growing dramatically, in part due to legal gains and in part due to a need to address the devastating effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It was cited by hundreds of later decisions in courts across the nation to justify all various restrictions on the rights of LGBT people.

Majority’s Notable Line (White):

“…it would be difficult…to limit the claimed right to homosexual conduct while leaving exposed to prosecution adultery, incest, and other sexual crimes even though they are committed in the home.”

Dissent’s Notable Line (Blackmun):

“The fact that individuals define themselves in a significant way through their intimate sexual relationships with others suggests, in a Nation as diverse as ours, that there may be many “right” ways of conducting those relationships, and that much of the richness of a relationship will come from the freedom an individual has to choose the form and nature of these intensely personal bonds.”

3.) Romer v. Evans

Year: 1996

Vote: 6 to 3

Ruling: The voter-approved Amendment 2 to the Colorado constitution seeking to block any state or local jurisdictions from prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation violated the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Impact: It overturned Colorado’s hostile law and put the brakes on a devastating trend of other states passing or attempting to pass similar initiatives. It also put governments on notice that they could not pass laws that disfavored LGBT people simply because a majority of voters dislike LGBT people.

Majority’s Notable Line (Kennedy):

“We must conclude that Amendment 2 classifies homosexuals not to further a proper legislative end but to make them unequal to everyone else. This Colorado cannot do. A State cannot so deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws.”

Dissent’s Notable Line (Scalia):

“This Court has no business imposing upon all Americans the resolution favored by the elite class from which the Members of this institution are selected, pronouncing that ‘animosity’ toward homosexuality is evil.”

4.) One v. Olesen

Year: 1958

Vote: Per Curiam (no dissenters)

Ruling: Without comment, the court overturned a Ninth Circuit decision that allowed the public mail service to refuse delivery of a gay and lesbian newsletter, which a Los Angeles postmaster had deemed pornographic.

Impact: This marked the first time the high court protected the rights of LGBT people specifically, and it did so in the context of harassment that began during the McCarthy Era of witch hunts against communists and homosexuals. By upholding the rights of gays and lesbians to express themselves politically and poetically, and to share those expressions among themselves through the mail, the court left open the important means of communication that the LGBT political and cultural movements needed to exist and grow.

5.) Hurley v. GLIB

Year: 1995

Vote: 9 to 0

Ruling: The First Amendment right to freedom of association trumped a state law prohibiting discrimination on account of sexual orientation in places of public accommodation.

Impact: This ruling not only weakened the ability of states to prohibit discrimination, it was the beginning of a trend in which people who did not like gays argued that the First Amendment gave them a right to express their disapproval in public contexts. In short order, numerous cases emerged, including Boy Scouts v. Dale (in 2000). Even today, the argument is raised, most recently in Christian Legal v. Martinez, testing the right of school officials to require student campus groups to treat all students equally.

Opinion’s Notable Line (Souter, in the first use of “gay” in a respectful fashion by the Supreme Court):

“GLIB was formed for the very purpose of marching in it…in order to celebrate its members’ identity as openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual descendants of the Irish immigrants, to show that there are such individuals in the community, and to support the like men and women who sought to march in the New York parade.”

Lisa Keen, co-author of Strangers to the Law: Gay People on Trial, will be posting nearly daily on legal matters leading up to and beyond the Supreme Court decision. Her coverage on this and other issues is also available at