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"Flagrant Conduct" by U Law Professor Dale Carpenter Acclaimed in New York Times, New York Review of Books, New Yorker

March 19, 2012

Critics are calling University of Minnesota Law School Professor Dale Carpenter’s new release, Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas, a landmark book on a landmark case.

Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Oshinsky calls the book “stirring and richly detailed” and says in the New York Times Book Review of March 18, 2012, that it “turns conventional wisdom about Lawrence on its head.” Georgetown University law professor and award-winning author David Cole says in the April 5, 2012, New York Review of Books that Flagrant Conduct “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.”

Flagrant Conduct is the first complete history of Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated America’s sodomy laws. Drawing on interviews he conducted over the course of nine years, Carpenter tells the story chronologically—before the arrests, the arrests, and after the arrests of John Lawrence and Tyron Garner on Sept. 17, 1998, in Houston, Texas, by sheriff’s deputies responding to a call that a black man was “going crazy with a gun.”

The four arresting officers reported walking in on the men having sex. But in what Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor and legal correspondent for Slate, says in the March 12 New Yorker is “Carpenter’s most fascinating revelation,” their accounts of what they saw that night never agreed. The two men said they were never sexually involved. And as Carpenter writes, “there is no reason, other than blind faith in the word of two sheriff's officers with lots of reason to misrepresent what they saw, to believe that there was any actual sex in the U.S. Supreme Court's heralded sexual freedom decision.”

Flagrant Conduct’s power and significance are due in large part to Carpenter’s placement of Lawrence v. Texas within the larger American legal and historical context—his portrayal of events from a perspective within a growing social movement.

Lawrence and Garner were charged with sodomy under a Texas statue that human rights communities had been poised to challenge for some time. Lambda Legal, a national gay-rights advocacy group, took on the case and soon convinced the two to enter a no-contest plea, accepting the “facts” as filed in the police report.

The plea allowed Lawrence litigators to concentrate on the law which, they argued, violated not only the constitution’s equal-protection guarantee but the plaintiffs’ liberty. “The legal issue was not that free societies must let drunken gay Texans have sex,” Lithwick comments in the New Yorker. “It was that gay families around the country, in the words of one of the lawyers in the case, ‘are essentially just like everybody else.’”

The transformation of once-criminalized conduct into a constitutional right was extraordinary, Cole says, and “The story of how it happened is one of the great success stories of public interest law.” Carpenter’s book justifies beyond question a prominent place for Lawrence v. Texas in American civil rights history.

To learn more about the book and read an excerpt, go to

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