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Poe v. Ullman - Defining The Right To Privacy

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Poe v. Ullman - Appellant's Claim, Significance, Justiciability Of The Claim, Defining The Right To Privacy

Defining the Right to Privacy

Justices Douglas and Harlan had a dissenting view of Poe v. Ullman. They wrote that the opinion of the majority left the appellants open to prosecution by an unconstitutional law. Both justices felt that the constitutionality of the Connecticut anti-contraceptive law should be thoroughly examined by the Court. They cited the Court's inclination to dismiss the case as trivial and lacking in substantive support and precedents as being a grave injustice to the Poes, Mrs. Doe, and Dr. Buxton. In looking at the arguments and evidence brought before the Court, both Douglas and Harlan shared the opinion that this case did involve constitutional decisions.

The heart of the dissenting opinion revolved around the definition of "the right to privacy." Douglas and Harlan questioned the state of Connecticut's authority to invade the bedroom of a married couple and examine the private and intimate relationship between spouses. Harlan wrote in his opinion,

I consider that this Connecticut legislation, as construed to apply to these appellants, violates the Fourteenth Amendment. I believe that a statute making it a criminal offense for married couples to use contraceptives is an intolerable and unjustifiable invasion of privacy in the conduct of the most intimate concerns of an individual's personal life.
Douglas and Harlan agreed that the only barrier between the appellants and prosecution was the "whim of the prosecutor." While the state might not physically invade the home, the concept of protection from illegal search and seizure of personal property was much broader in scope, protecting the spiritual nature of privacy as well as the physical.

In 1965 the Supreme Court was faced with another case with the same issue of the constitutionality of anti-contraceptive laws for married couples in Griswold v. Connecticut. Unlike the dismissal of Poe v. Ullman the Supreme Court concluded in a 7-2 decision that the statute did violate the right to privacy. The right to privacy was viewed as a constitutional principle guaranteed by the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, and fully protected by the Constitution.

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