Review of Flagrant Conduct in the New York Review of Books

Georgetown Law Professor David Cole has a terrific review of my new book, Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas (Norton) in the April 5 issue of the NYRB. Cole presents the basic background, including what likely happened the night John Lawrence and Tyron Garner were arrested for the crime of “Homosexual Conduct,” a Texas law that forbade oral and anal sex for same-sex couples but not for opposite-sex couples. A similar Georgia law had been upheld in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), which the Lawrence Court reversed.  Cole notes that it was unusual enough for the Court to recognize its own error:

But for it to happen in a mere seventeen years, the equivalent of a nanosecond in the “Jarndyce and Jarndyce” tempo of constitutional law, is nothing short of extraordinary. The story of how it happened is one of the great success stories of public interest law. It shows what a carefully orchestrated litigation campaign can do when supported by a passionate and growing social movement. At the same time, it offers a cautionary tale for the current controversy over the recognition of same-sex marriage, which may soon be headed, prematurely, to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas devoted a scant paragraph to an anodyne description of the facts of the case, barely mentioned the defendants, and described their alleged conduct only as “a sexual act.” The Court was evidently more at ease with the nuances of constitutional jurisprudence than with the messy details of the case. Dale Carpenter’s Flagrant Conduct fills in the gaps, and provides a rich, meticulous, and fascinating account of the most important constitutional decision so far on the status of gays and lesbians in American society.

Unlike the Court, Carpenter revels in the factual details and the personalities involved in the struggle, as he takes us from the recesses of a private bedroom in a seedy condominium on the outskirts of Houston to the oral argument in the grand chamber of the United States Supreme Court. Along the way, he offers sharp insights into the politics, ironies, and strategies behind the Brown v. Board of Education of the gay rights movement.