40, Love: Justice Jo(h)n Paul

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul unearths an old letter from Judge Buchmeyer and pays tribute to Justice John Paul.

As I explain in Alphabet City’s Episode 14: Happy Soul, I have always disliked jokes about my name as it relates to other famous faces.

People making jokes about my name exhausted me.  The next line was usually, “Oh, like John Paul Jones?”  Or John Paul Sartre.  Or John Paul George and Ringo.  It’s just one of those things I’ve heard my whole life and am prickly about.

But one man was always an exception—legendary (and retiring) Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.  It wasn’t often that people conjured up his name when they met me, but when they did it was a pleasure.

Justice JP became an important figure in our house, when in 1986, he opposed the court’s decision in Bowers v. Hardwick—a case challenging Georgia’s law criminalizing homosexuality.  That decision by the Supreme Court to allow such laws to stand effectively reversed my own father’s decision in Baker v. Wade to strike down Texas’ similar law.  My father was crushed, and so was I as a young teenager kid struggling to make sense of my sexuality—and the highest court in the lands opposition to it.

First page of the note my father sent me about Hardwick/Baker v. Wade

At the time of the decision, I was in Brazil as a high school exchange student.  My father broke the news to me in the first letter he wrote me.  I discovered the letter among my father’s papers after his death.  Here’s an excerpt of the hand written note on my father’s judicial letterhead; capitalization is true to Dad’s original:

8 July [1986]

Dear Paul—

First letter. Bad news.

On the day you left the United States, the Supreme Court decided the Hardwick case (the Georgia sodomy case) by a 5-4 vote.  If you remember, my opinion in Baker v. Wade was deliberately written to hold that a state could not condemn sodomy between husband and wife (or unmarried heterosexuals), so therefore a state could not prohibit private, consensual homosexual conduct.

Well, in Hardwick, the Supreme Court held that it was constitutional for a state to condemn sodomy between husband and wife—and that the Georgia statute prohibiting all heterosexual and homosexual conduct was enforceable.  Hell, they even indicated that a state could constitutionally prohibit adultery.  Powell, the swing vote, allowed that it might be O.K. to fine people who engage in sodomy, but you couldn’t put them in jail because that just might be cruel and unusual punishment.

Blackmun and [John Paul] Stevens wrote excellent dissents—which has been described as “his greatest moment on the Court,” and I agree.  Copies of the opinion and the New York Times coverage are enclosed.

Hardwick sounded the death knell for Baker v. Wade.  At first, I was very upset that Baker had not been the first case to the Supreme Court…later, I realized that it would have made no difference—since the majority would have ignored my findings, just like the Fifth Circuit did.

To conclude, Chris [his wife, my stepmother] and I were watching Lawrence Tribe (who handled both Hardwick and Baker in the Supreme Court) debate some Nerd Guy from a Right-Wing Group in Washington, DC, on the McNeil-Lehrer show.  The Nerd made the telling point that, if a state could not condemn sodomy in the bedroom, then it would have no right, “to prohibit two businessmen from agreeing to fix prices in the privacy of their own bedroom.”

Well, Tribe and Chris came Totally Unglued, at the same time and to the same extent.  Tribe nailed the Nerd with a sarcastic point about someone trying to equate private sexual conduct to economic decisions.  Chris cheered “ALRIGHT.”

Later in the show I whispered to Chris: “Would you like to go into our bedroom and fix prices?”  After some delay Chris responded: “I love it when you talk economics to me.”

Better news in letter 2.


Justice JP—thanks for fighting the good fight, and always lending honor to our name.  And for giving my father the opportunity to teach lesson in sex & economics.

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