Alabama's Sodomy Ban Is Ruled Unconstitutional—Finally

Why has the state taken so long to catch up in its sexuality morality laws?
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Last Friday, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that consensual anal sex between two male adults is legal. The state's ban on sodomy, covered under its "sexual misconduct" statute, is officially unconstitutional.

Which would be a remarkable milestone, if not for the fact that the Supreme Court declared this kind of law unconstitutional more than a decade ago. In its 2003 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, the justices struck down Texas's sodomy ban, invalidating similar laws in 13 other states, including Alabama. "The court could not have been clearer that sexual relations between consenting adults is permissible," said Suzanne Goldberg, a law professor at Columbia University who specializes in gender and sexuality. Right after the ruling, Alabama's attorney general even acknowledged that it would nullify the state's sodomy laws. 

So why did Alabama prosecutors try to convict a man, Dewayne Williams, on sodomy charges—seven years later, in 2010? Why did it take until 2014 for a state court to acknowledge a decade-old federal ruling?

The simple-sounding answer probably isn't the right one. "The notion that there’s a serious commitment to use the law to prosecute sexual acts in Alabama is a non-starter," said Ronald Krotoszynski, a constitutional law professor at the University of Alabama. The real question is this, he said: "Why don’t lawmakers clean up these codebooks?" When federal courts make rulings that affect state laws, those laws can theoretically stay written the same way—they may just carry the minor inconvenience of being unconstitutional.

It's possible that this is a pure case of administrative and prosecutorial laziness—it's a lot of trouble to make constant codebook revisions in state legislatures. And the prosecutors in last week's appeals case, Williams v. Alabama, may not have done their homework and read up on high-profile Supreme Court rulings from the past decade.

But probably not. "There’s a small minority that views laws as 'expressive functions.' They want them on the codebooks," even if they've been ruled unconstitutional in higher courts, said Krotoszynski. In other words, sexual morality laws aren't just laws; they're symbols, too. This case points to the many symbolic anachronisms in the state's legal code—like the fact that a man cannot be legally convicted of raping another man. As the laws are written, consensual sodomy is banned in Alabama. Even though that's unconstitutional, it's not meaningless.

***

"There's a famous Alabama case saying that sodomy is such a detestable crime that it didn't need further definition." Joseph Colquitt, a law professor at the University of Alabama, chuckled at the thought: a legal definition based on a lack of definition. In the 1970s, he was one of the legal reporters who helped draft Alabama's original sexual-assault statutes; around this time, many states were trying to codify definitions that had previously been  "common law," or generally accepted standards based on precedents.

Indeed, a 1969 Alabama appeals-court decision described sodomy this way: "It is characterized as as abominable, detestable, unmentionable, and too disgusting and well-known to require other definition or further details or description."  

"A lot of states retain the idea that it was against the law for persons of whatever gender to engage in sodomy activity; it was a word used in common law," Colquitt said. "Everyone knew what sodomy was: It’s a crime against nature."

But the 1970s law had at least one very clear intention: criminalizing gay sex. In the original draft, the commentary says, the ban against "sexual misconduct" was all about consent: If someone made any kind of unwanted sexual conduct with someone else, it would be treated as a crime, the same way vaginal sex was treated. But it goes on: "If both actors were adult and both consented, there was no offense; but this subdivision was changed by the legislature to make all homosexual conduct criminal."

Consent, it notes, is "no defense."

This is where things seem to have gotten tricky in last week's ruling in Alabama. According to court documents, Dewayne Williams was staying at a motel in Selma on January 10, 2010. After hanging around the lobby for most of the day, the prosecution alleges, Williams grabbed a staff member, A.R., "by his throat and pushed him into the bathroom in the office. Williams told A.R. to not say anything or scream and that if A.R. did, Williams would choke A.R. harder. ... Williams proceeded to sodomize A.R."

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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