Learn from your Mistakes

When referring to federal law, we often consider the individuals involved in the justice system to be impeccable with their judgments, or otherwise fundamentally incapable of making extreme mistakes and misinterpretations. This naïve mindset could be generated in part by the fact that the lives and wellbeing of humans is on the line in nearly every ruling. Unfortunately, this optimistic fallacy is far from the truth, and the flaws of the justice system are occasionally exposed.  A prime example of injustice can be viewed through the case and ruling of Bowers v. Hardwick, which struggled to define the right to privacy according to the constitution. The case of Bowers v. Hardwick served as an impeccable illustration of the common uncertainty of the justice system, and proved that individual interpretation is both an unavoidable component of human nature and a possible conflict in the law.

The situation began in 1982, in Atlanta, Georgia when an individual by the name of Michael Hardwick failed to appear at court after he was charged with drinking in public. A police officer seeking to serve him his arrest warrant appeared at his house. The roommate of Hardwick answered the door and told the officer that Hardwick was not home, but gave the policeman permission to enter the house and take a look. It was at this point that the officer discovered Hardwick and another male engaged in intercourse, and Michael Hardwick was promptly arrested. (Sodomy was prohibited by Georgia law at this time) Though the sodomy charges were quickly dropped, Michael Hardwick teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union to file a lawsuit against the constitutionality of the Georgia law. Their lawsuit was originally dismissed by Judge Robert Hall, but was then reversed by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds that the case interfered with the right to privacy. Attorney Michael Bowers appealed that reversal, which was brought to the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court finally ruled that the original law prohibiting sodomy was constitutional, and closed the case. (I provided only a brief outline of the case; if you wish to do some further research, additional information can be found here: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/478/186)


To begin, we will examine the first evident injustice in regards to Bowers v. Hardwick. When delivering a case before the American court system, there must be some type of harm placed on one party to ensure validity. It is clear that Michael Hardwick’s personal decisions did not put anyone in harm, and yet charges were still placed against him. Hardwick’s consensual actions transpired in the privacy of his house with a willing partner. The police officer had no legal right to arrest him on the grounds of sodomy. To continue, the dispute between Bowers and Hardwick undoubtedly deals with one of the most difficult components of delivering justice; individual interpretation of the law, and the definition of human rights. The 14th amendment declares that “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law;” The right to privacy protects intimate aspects of marriage, procreation and marriage-related contraception issues. Therefore, the ruling in the case of Bowers v. Hardwick undeniably abridges the privileges and immunities of Michael Hardwick, and confirmed the case’s unfairness.   

Although this dilemma seems to be a clear-cut unjust ruling, a few explanations can be provided for why the case may have concluded the way it did. Due to the fact that “legal privacy” is more of a natural right than a constitutionally given right, its interpretation will certainly vary between individuals. (We have witnessed controversy over how to properly define “natural rights” for decades) In order to fully understand the law, one must also understand that nearly every individual’s personal opinion varies in some way. As long as we allow and promote humans to openly interpret the rights of American citizens, can we honestly expect anything less than occasional uncertainty? We can only hope that as a nation, we may find the ability to avoid future injustices by examining the past and learning from our mistakes. 

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5 Responses to Learn from your Mistakes

  1. mernasyawish says:

    Very well written post, Nick! Among all the cases that resulted into an injustice, this one struck me the most. Bowers v. Hardwick completely lacked the recognition of equality and privacy for citizens due to their sexual preference. The police officer initially went into Mr. Hardwick’s home for something entirely different than what he left with and disregarded exactly what he was there to in the first place. It’s a true shame that our justice system failed to recognize the fundamental right to privacy that all citizens were “supposed” to have at that time.

  2. ajgoldsmith says:

    I thought that your post got to the crux of the issue with the question “As long as we allow and promote humans to openly interpret the rights of American citizens, can we honestly expect anything less than occasional uncertainty?” I believe you hint at the answer of the only certainty that we have, in politics, the law, and ultimately life is uncertainty. With this realization, we find that interpretation is inevitable because with issues that deal with being with others, scientific calculation cannot get to the heart of the matter. We cannot simply impose our interpretations on others yet we require resolution to our problems. I guess our hope lies in a refinement of our aesthetic and interpretative processes to bring about the relief that is necessary to meet the challenges of the day.

  3. bmfdub says:

    The “Privileges and Immunities” clause was not the case argued here, and if it was, I do not believe the ruling would have been the same. What “Privileges and Immunities” does the American citizen have and where are those defined?

    Ironically, the “privileges and immunities” clause is not a vehicle for expansion of rights as shown often throughout early incorporation attempts. Actually, it has only been used a very small handful of times in the nearly 150 years since its ratification, most notably in the 2010 Second Amendment challenge in McDonald v Chicago.

    Though it seems as though the “privileges and immunities” clause is the operative clause of the entire amendment, however it is actually the “due process clause” that has more grit to it.

  4. You bring up the subject of “harm” in your post, Nick, and I think that’s a very important point. Nearly any regulation or law can be justified if it can be showed to “harm” somebody in some way. It seems incredibly clear to us today that two consenting adults engaging in sexual activity in their home harms no one in the sense that no one’s right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness is being infringed upon.

    However there are other definitions of “harm” that can include activities that impact society as a whole.

    This is from Mill [emphasis mine]:
    “The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people, if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct. ***Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishments, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.***”

    That’s the line of thinking we see when someone says, “do whatever you want in the privacy of your home, but I don’t want to have to explain to my kids why two men are holding hands in public.” If you think that homosexuality is morally wrong, then people engaging in homosexual acts are engaging in indecency, which the law prohibits.

    It’s been well-established that there are physiological differences between gays and lesbians and transgender individuals make it quite clear that their sexual attraction is biological and genetic more than anything else. But if you ignore that evidence, as many opponents of LBGT rights do, then homosexuality becomes a deviant behavior, an immoral choice. Notice how opponents of gay marriage and gay rights sometimes compare homosexuality to pedophilia or bestiality. (http://www.policymic.com/articles/31809/ben-carson-compares-homosexuality-to-bestiality-and-pedophilia http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/05/07/pat-robertson-gay-marriag_n_199312.html)

    While the public perception of the LBGT community has changed drastically in just the last 20 years, the the majority of the American public still oppose prostitution. Concerns about human trafficking and the woman’s well-being are relatively recent. By-and-large, the opposition to prostitution is fueled by the belief that selling one’s sexual services is morally wrong and indeed harms society.

    There are many activities that are regulated or banned because of their impact, whether perceived or real, on society as a whole. While our generation has taken an increasingly libertarian view on regulating human behavior, particularly in regards to what happens in the bedroom, we should not forget the harm principle is a live and well.

  5. With the case you have as an example hits your subject right on the head when it comes to cases that have been prosecuted without any evidence to begin with. I have seen and heard of many cases with police and law enforcement have violated the right to privacy law just to get a case on a particular someone that has been on the radar for something but has nothing on them as far as evidence. Great post and I enjoyed reading it and I could not have said it better myself.

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