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Griswold v. Connecticut

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Significance: While overturning a Connecticut statute that had prohibited the use of contraceptives in this case, the Supreme Court explicitly recognized constitutional protection for a generic right to privacy.


According to the doctrine of substantive due process, which was implicitly utilized in Griswold v. Connecticut, the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibited government from depriving persons of liberty arbitrarily or without adequate justification. From 1897 to 1937, the Court consistently used the doctrine to protect a liberty of contract, thus limiting the government's power to regulate the economy in the public interest. For this reason, liberal justices, such as Hugo L. Black and William O. Douglas, distrusted the doctrine. Nevertheless, the Court several times had applied the doctrine in protecting noneconomic liberties not mentioned in the Constitution, as in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), which affirmed the right of parents to send their children to private schools. A Connecticut statute of 1879 criminalized the use and dissemination of contraceptives. In Tileston v. Ullman (1943) and Poe v. Ullman (1961), the Court refused to make a ruling on the law's constitutionality because of the issues of ripeness and standing. Estelle Griswold, director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, was one of the leaders in the movement to repeal the law, which was primarily being utilized to prevent the operation of birth-control clinics. After she and an associate opened a clinic, they were arrested and convicted of misdemeanors under the 1879 statute. The convictions were upheld by Connecticut's high court. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the convictions by a 7-2 vote. Delivering the opinion of the Court, Justice William O. Douglas argued that the specific protections in the Bill of Rights had penumbras, or emanations extending beyond the literal words of the amendments. He referred to a series of precedents, including National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Alabama (1958), which had broadly interpreted the First Amendment to imply a right of association. Douglas asserted that another protected penumbra was the right to privacy, which included protection for intimate marital relationships. He asked rhetorically: “Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for tell-tale signs of the use of contraceptives?” Other justices wrote three concurring opinions and two dissenting opinions. Justice Arthur Goldberg, joined by William J. Brennan, Jr., argued that the Ninth Amendment demonstrated the framers’ belief in fundamental rights not enumerated in the Constitution. Justice John Marshall Harlan relied more openly on the doctrine of substantive due process, writing that the Connecticut law violated the “basic values implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” Similarly, Justice Byron R. White declared that the statute had deprived married couples “of ‘liberty’ without due process of law.” Dissenting, Justice Hugo L. Black argued that it was just as wrong for justices to impose their personal preferences in matters of personal liberty as in matters of economic relations. Justice Potter Stewart joined Black's dissent, although he observed that the law was “uncommonly silly.” The Griswold ruling did not attract much attention from the public at the time it was issued. Eight years later, however, the logic of the ruling provided the foundation for Roe v. Wade, which recognized the right of women to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Afterward, the right of privacy was extended to several related areas, such as the right to refuse any medical services (Cruzan v. Missouri Dept. of Health, 1990) and the right of consenting adults to engage in homosexual practices in their private homes (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003). During the early twenty-first century, many justices preferred to speak of “liberty interests” rather than the right of privacy.