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Doc seeks protection for contraceptive users (Poe v. Ullman)

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Quimbee: Poe v. Ullman

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Dr. Lee Buxton was an obstetrician practicing in Connecticut in the 1950s. Dr. Buxton wanted to give advice about contraceptives to his patients.

But Buxton feared prosecution under a state law barring the use of contraceptives, despite the fact that only one prosecution had ever been brought under the law in its more than 80-year history. In fact, Connecticut drug stores openly sold contraceptives at the time.

Nevertheless, Buxton sued the state attorney general to challenge the law as a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Three of Buxton’s patients, who feared serious physical and mental health consequences would result from any future pregnancies, joined the suit.

The trial court dismissed the case, but Buxton appealed, eventually petitioning the United States Supreme Court for certiorari on the Due Process issue. The Court granted cert, but decided the case of Poe v. Ullman, 367 U.S. 497 (1961), on other grounds.

Specifically, the Court considered whether federal courts should entertain constitutional attacks on state laws that had lain dormant for years. Pursuant to the Constitution, federal courts may only hear matters involving a genuine case or controversy. A plurality of justices concluded that Dr. Buxton’s case was nonjusticiable because the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate a real or immediate threat of harm posed by possible enforcement of the law.

This case remains an important illustration of the requirements for justiciability.

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