New York Law School

Art Leonard Observations

Posts Tagged ‘14th Amendment’

Federal Court Awards Preliminary Restroom Access Relief to Transgender Students on Their Constitutional Claim

Posted on: February 28th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

Switching the focus from Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to the Equal Protection Clause of the federal Constitution, U.S. District Judge Mark R. Hornak of the Western District of Pennsylvania awarded a preliminary injunction on February 27 to three transgender high school students represented by Lambda Legal who are challenging a school board resolution that bars them from using sex-segregated restrooms that are consistent with their gender identities. Evancho v. Pine-Richland School District, Civil No. 2:16-01537.

Acknowledging the Trump Administration’s February 22 action withdrawing two letters sent by the U.S. Education Department during the Obama Administration on the subject of transgender restroom access under Title IX as well as the pending U.S. Supreme Court consideration of Gloucester County School Board v. G.G. (certiorari granted October 28, 2016), a Title IX claim by Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy from Virginia, against his school district, in which that Court granted the school district’s request to stay a preliminary injunction issued by the district court (see 136 S. Ct. 2442 (Aug. 3, 2016)), Judge Hornak wrote that he “cannot conclude that the path to relief sought by the Plaintiffs under Title IX is at the moment sufficiently clear that they have a reasonable likelihood of success on that claim.”  A “reasonable likelihood” finding is a prerequisite to issuing preliminary relief.

On the other hand, Hornak concluded that the plaintiffs did have such a path under the Equal Protection Clause and decided to blaze a new trail on this issue, in which prior courts have focused their attention almost exclusively on Title IX in line with the general preference of federal courts to rule based on statutes rather than resorting to constitutional rulings.

Hornak prefaced his constitutional analysis with a detailed set of factual findings and a sharp focus on the particular facts of this case, including that the three transgender students involved all began their transitions a few years ago and had been using restrooms consistent with their gender identities without any opposition from school administrators or any disturbance as early as the 2013-14 school year. In each case, they and their parents had met with school administrators, who had agreed to recognize and honor their gender identities in all respects.  Each of them has been living consistent with their gender identity for several years, although because of their ages only one of them has obtained a new birth certificate.  Administrators, teachers and fellow students have consistently used their preferred names and pronouns and treated them accordingly.  It wasn’t until a student mention the restroom use to her parents, who then contacted the school board together with other parents and turned it into an “issue,” that administrators even became aware that the transgender students were using the restrooms, since nobody had complained about it or made it an issue before then.  Ultimately the school board responded to noisy parental opposition at a series of public meetings, first rejecting a resolution allowing the transgender students to use the restrooms consistent with their gender identity by a tie vote, then adopting a contrary resolution by a slim margin.

The judge also pointed out that the boys’ and girls’ restrooms at the Pine-Richland high school were designed with individual privacy in mind, with dividers between the urinals in the boys’ rooms and privacy-protecting stalls with internal locks for the toilets in both rooms. Locker room access is not an issue at this point in the case, since all three plaintiffs have completed their physical education requirements and are not using the locker rooms.  The school also has established numerous single-user restrooms that are accessible to students.  The judge easily concluded, based on uncontested evidence that the restrictive Resolution was not necessary to protecting anybody’s privacy, thus rejecting one of the main justifications advanced by the school board.

Neither the Supreme Court nor the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over federal trial courts in Pennsylvania, has ruled on what standard of judicial review applies to government policies that discriminate because of gender identity. The school board argued that this means the court should use the least demanding standard, rationality review, to evaluate its policy.  Judge Hornak rejected that argument, saying, “First, that means that applying an Equal Protection standard other than rational basis in such a setting is not contrary to settled law, and second, when an issue is fairly and squarely presented to a District Court, that Court must address it. Dodging the question is not an option.”  He also observed that an earlier decision by another trial judge in his district involving a transgender student, Johnston v. University of Pittsburgh, 97 F. Supp. 3d 557 (W.D. Pa. 2015), was not binding on him, and he found that case distinguishable on the facts and the law, not least because of the extended period in this case during which the plaintiffs used restrooms without incident and had full recognition of their gender identity by the school administration and staff.

Reviewing the various criteria that the Supreme Court has discussed in cases about the appropriate level of equal protection review, Hornak concluded that the “intermediate standard” used in sex discrimination cases should apply in this case. “The record before the Court reflects that transgender people as a class have historically been subject to discrimination or differentiation; that they have a defining characteristic that frequently bears no relation to an ability to perform or contribute to society; that as a class they exhibit immutable or distinguishing characteristics that define them as a discrete group; and that as a class, they are a minority with relatively little political power.”  Focusing on this particular case, he wrote, “As to these Plaintiffs, their transgender characteristics are inherent in who they are as people, which is not factually contested by the District.  As to these Plaintiffs, and more generally as to transgender individuals as a class, that characteristic bears no relationship to their ability to contribute to our society.  More precisely, the record reveals that the Plaintiffs are in all respects productive, engaged, contributing members of the student body at the High School.  Thus, all of the indicia for the application of the heightened intermediate scrutiny standard are present there.”

That means that the defendants have the burden to justify their discriminatory policy, and the judge concluded they were likely to fall short in that. “Specifically, what is missing from the record here are facts that demonstrate the ‘exceedingly persuasive justification” for the enforcement of Resolution 2 as to restroom use by these Plaintiffs that is substantially related to an important governmental interest,” wrote Hornak.  The Resolution was not shown to be “necessary to quell any actual or incipient threat, disturbance or other disruption of school activity by the Plaintiffs,” he found, and there was no evidence that it was necessary to “address any such threat or disturbance by anyone else in the High School restrooms.” Furthermore, it did not address any privacy concern “that is not already well addressed by the physical layout of the bathrooms,” he found, continuing, “it would appear to the Court that anyone using the toilets or  urinals at the High School is afforded actual physical privacy from others viewing their external sex organs and excretory functions.  Conversely, others in the restrooms are shielded from such views.”  And the school’s existing code of conduct as well as state laws already exist to deal with any “unlawful malicious ‘peeping Tom’ activity by anyone pretending to be transgender,” he wrote, dismissing a concern raised by the defendants as a hypothetical justification for the policy.

The school board argued that some parents had threatened to withdraw their students from school if the Board did not keep transgender students out of the restrooms, but the court was not willing to countenance this as a justification for the policy. “If adopting and implementing a school policy or practice based on those individual determinations or preferences of parents – no matter how sincerely held – runs counter to the legal obligations of the District,” he wrote, “then the District’s and the Board’s legal obligations must prevail. Those obligations to the law take precedence over responding to constituent desires,” because the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause “is neither applied nor construed by popular vote.”

Furthermore, rejecting the Board’s argument that enjoining the Resolution while the case proceeds was an improper change of the “status quo,” the court found that for several years the plaintiffs freely using the restrooms consistent with their gender identity was the “status quo,” even if school officials claimed they were unaware of it. This was a “persistently-applied custom or practice” which had the same weight as a written policy and, of course, until the Resolution was adopted, the District had no written policy on this issue.  The court rejected the defendants’ argument that the availability of single-user restrooms “sprinkled around the High School” provided a sufficient “safety valve” for the plaintiffs, making an injunction unnecessary.  “Given that settled precedent provides that impermissible distinctions by official edict cause tangible Constitutional harm,” he wrote, “the law does not impose on the Plaintiffs the obligation to use single-user facilities in order to ‘solve the problem.’” He found that this was “no answer under the Equal Protection Clause that those impermissibly singled out for different treatment can, and therefore must, themselves ‘solve the problem’ by further separating themselves from their peers.”

He easily concluded that the differential treatment inflicted irreparable harm on the plaintiffs, and that ordering the District to allow them to use gender-appropriate restrooms would “cause relatively little ‘harm’ in the preliminary injunction sense – if any harm at all – to the District and the High School community.” It was crucial to this conclusion, of course, that the plaintiffs had been using the restrooms without incident for years until some parents made an issue out of it.  He also found that issuing the injunction would serve the public interest by vindicating the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs.

In case a second-guessing court of appeals should disagree with his determination that heightened scrutiny applied to this case, Judge Hornak also stated that the Resolution probably would not even survive rationality review, since he found that it was not necessary to achieve any of the goals suggested by the defendants.

Judge Hornak’s decision not to grant the injunction based on Title IX seems prudent in light of the unsettled situation he describes. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the Gavin Grimm case depended on deference to the Obama Administration’s interpretation of the Education Department’s bathroom regulation.  With that interpretation being “withdrawn” by the Trump Administration in a letter that did not substitute any new interpretation in its place, there is nothing to defer to and the construction of the statute and regulation is now pending before the Supreme Court, which voted 5-3 last summer to stay the district court’s preliminary injunction in the Grimm case.  Hornak noted that the criteria for the Supreme Court issuing a stay in a case like that include the Court’s judgment that the case presents a serious possibility of being reversed by the Court on the merits.  What he omits to mention is that the stay was issued only because Justice Stephen Breyer, who would in other circumstances have likely voted against granting the stay, released an explanation that he was voting for the stay as a “courtesy” to the four more conservative justices, undoubtedly because they had the four votes to grant a petition to review the 4th Circuit’s ruling.  Under the Supreme Court’s procedures, five votes are needed to take an action, such as issuing a stay or reversing a lower court ruling, but only four votes are needed to grant a petition to review a lower court decision.  It was clear in that case that the Gloucester County School Board would be filing a petition for review and that there were four justices ready to grant it.  Judge Hornak interpreted that, as Justice Breyer clearly did, as a signal that the interpretation of Title IX in this context is up for grabs.  If Neil Gorsuch is confirmed by the Senate in time to participate in deciding that case, the outcome will probably turn on Justice Anthony Kennedy, who voted for the stay.  (Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan announced that they would have denied the stay.)

Judge Hornak’s ruling confirms that for the overwhelming majority of educational institutions subject to Title IX because they receive federal funds, it does not really matter whether Title IX requires them to afford gender-consistent restroom access to transgender students (or staff, for that matter), because as government-operated institutions they are bound to respect the Equal Protection rights of their students and employees. However, for non-governmental educational institutions that receive federal funds, either through work-study programs, loan assistance, or research grants in the case of the major private universities, their federal obligations towards transgender students depend on Title IX and whatever state or local laws might apply to them as places of public accommodation, which vary from state to state, only a minority of states and localities protecting transgender people from discrimination.

In light of the lack of 3rd Circuit appellate precedent on the constitutional issue, it would not be surprising if the defendants seek a stay of this injunction from the court of appeals, and there is no predicting how that court would rule, although the likelihood that the Supreme Court will issue a ruling of some sort in the Grimm case by the end of June might lead them to err on the side of caution to give the school district temporary relief.

Lambda Legal’s attorneys representing the plaintiffs are Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, Christopher Clark and Kara Ingelhart, who are joined by local counsel in Pennsylvania, Tracie Palmer and David C. Williams of Kline & Specter, P.C..

Texas Appeals Court Denies Constitutional Challenge to “Online Impersonation” Statute in Manhunt.net Case

Posted on: September 1st, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

Who knew? It is potentially a crime in Texas, and apparently several other states, to pose as somebody else on social media sites like Manhunt.net, and this does not violate anybody’s 1st Amendment rights, held a panel of the Texas 5th District Court of Appeals in Ex parte Bradshaw, 2016 Tex. App. LEXIS 9203, 2016 WL 4443714 (Aug. 23, 2016).

According to the opinion by Justice Robert M. Fillmore, Michael Dwain Bradshaw has been charged with violating Texas Penal Code Sec. 33.07(a), titled “Online Impersonation.” The statute provides that a person “commits an offense if the person, without obtaining the other person’s consent and with the intent to harm, defraud, intimidate, or threaten any person, uses the name or persona of another person to (1) create a web page on a commercial social networking site or other Internet website; or (2) post or send one or more messages on or through a commercial social networking site or other Internet website, other than on or through an electronic mail program or message board program.” The indictment charges Bradshaw with “intentionally or knowingly using Joel Martin’s name or persona to post or send one or more messages on or though manhunt.net, an Internet website, without obtaining Martin’s consent, and with the intent to harm Martin.”  Justice Fillmore does not get any more specific about the factual allegations against Bradshaw, devoting the entire balance of the opinion to rejecting his constitutional claims.  Bradshaw, represented by attorneys Mark W. Bennett and Toby L. Shook, filed a pretrial application for writ of habeas corpus, seeking to get the indictment quashed on the ground that the statute is facially unconstitutional.  A Dallas County Criminal Court judge denied the petition, and Bradshaw appealed to the 5th District court.

Bradshaw’s first argument was unconstitutional overbreadth, claiming that as worded the statute has the effect of “restricting a substantial amount of protected speech based on the content of the speech.” The state argued that the statute regulates only conduct and unprotected speech, and that any incidental effect on protected speech “is marginal when weighed against the plainly legitimate sweep of the statute.”  Justice Fillmore noted Supreme Court precedents describing the overbreadth doctrine as “strong medicine that is used sparingly and only as a last resort,” reserved for statutes presenting a “realistic” danger of inhibiting constitutionally protected speech.  The level of judicial scrutiny in such cases depends on whether the statute is content-based – that is, coverage triggered by the substance of the speech involved.  The court concluded that the “vast majority” of speech covered by the statute is not protected by the 1st Amendment, and agreed with the state’s argument that the statute is mainly about regulating conduct.

“Impersonation is a nature-of-conduct offense,” wrote Fillmore, which “does not implicate the First Amendment unless the conduct qualifies as ‘expressive conduct’ akin to speech.” Bradshaw contended that “using another’s name or persona to create a webpage, post a message, send a message” is inherently expressive conduct, but the court did not buy this argument, finding that the focus of the statute was on how somebody used another’s name or image: “Any subsequent ‘speech’ related to that conduct is integral to criminal conduct and may be prevented and punished without violating the First Amendment,” wrote Fillmore. As such, the level of judicial review of the statute would not be strict scrutiny – reserved for content-based speech restrictions – but rather “intermediate review” requiring the government to show that the statute advances a significant state interest.  Contrary to Bradshaw’s argument, the court found the statute to be content-neutral.  It didn’t matter whose name or persona was being appropriated; it was the fact of appropriation of identity, which the court saw as conduct, that was being punished, and then only if it was being done for purposes specified in the statute.

Looking to the legislative history of the statute, Justice Fillmore found Texas House committee hearings generating a report that the purpose of the statute was “to ‘deter and punish’ individuals who assumed the identity of another and sent false, harassing, or threatening electronic messages to the victim or a third party who was unaware of the perpetrator’s true identity. The committee noted that online harassment had resulted in suicide, threats of physical or mental abuse, and more, but ‘current Texas law does not provide a means of prosecuting some of the most egregious of these acts.  There is nothing in the legislative history,” wrote Fillmore, “that would suggest the legislature was targeting or expressing its disagreement with any particular topic or viewpoint by enacting section 33.07(a).”  And the court concluded that addressing this problem did involve a significant governmental interest of “protecting citizens from crime, fraud, defamation or threats from online impersonation.”

“It also serves a significant First Amendment interest in regulating false and compelled speech on the part of the individual whose identity has been appropriated,” wrote Fillmore, dismissing the “hypotheticals” posed by Bradshaw in his argument as insubstantial “in comparison to the statute’s plainly legitimate sweep over unprotected speech and conduct.”

Bradshaw also attacked the law under the 14th Amendment Due Process Clause as unduly vague, not giving specific enough warning to people about what conduct crossed the line of legality.  In this case, the court found, the legislature had avoided any vagueness problem by including elsewhere in the Texas Penal Code a definition of “harm” generally as “anything reasonably regarded as loss, disadvantage, or injury, including harm to another person in whose welfare the person affected is interested.”  More specifically, Chapter 33 of the Penal Code, which contains the challenged statute, has its own definition of “harm” that includes harm to computer data and “any other loss, disadvantage, or injury that might reasonably be suffered as a result of the actor’s conduct.”  Noting that harm is a word in common use, the court also cited to dictionaries, concluding that a “person of ordinary intelligence” would have “fair notice of what the statute prohibits.”

Finally, Bradshaw contended that Texas could not regulate conduct involving the internet because this “unduly burdens interstate commerce by attempting to place regulations on Internet users everywhere,” invoking a legal doctrine called the Dormant Commerce Clause. Fillmore rejected the contention that the Texas law burdens interstate commerce.  “Evenhanded local regulation intended to effectuate a legitimate local public interest that has only incidental effects on interstate commerce will be upheld,” he wrote, “unless the burden imposed on such commerce is clearly excessive in relation to the putative local benefits.”  Here, he observed, the court had found that Texas has a significant interest in protecting its citizens.  “It is difficult to envision how interstate commerce is benefitted by the conduct proscribed by section 33.07(a),” wrote Fillmore, “and we believe the burden of the statute on interstate commerce is small.”  Thus, the writ was denied and the prosecution can proceed.

Which leads the reader to speculate about the facts of this case. Did Bradshaw use Martin’s picture or name to cruise on Manhunt.net, to lure people into compromising situations, or to engage in conduct that would damage Martin’s reputation or subject him to liability or prosecution if attributed to him?  If this case goes to trial and produces written opinions or attracts media attention, perhaps we will find out.  If, as is true in the overwhelming majority of criminal prosecutions, Bradshaw accepts a plea bargain offered by the prosecution, we may never find out.

Federal Judge in Puerto Rico Claims Obergefell v. Hodges Does Not Apply There

Posted on: March 9th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

In an astonishing departure from established precedents, U.S. District Judge Juan M. Perez-Gimenez of the U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico, who had dismissed a marriage equality lawsuit on October 21, 2014, has issued a new decision on March 8, 2016, Vidal v. Garcia-Padilla, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29651, asserting that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on June 26, 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, that the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right of same-sex couples to marry in the United States, does not necessarily apply to Puerto Rico.

Lambda Legal represents the plaintiffs in that marriage equality case.  Lambda appealed the court’s 2014 ruling to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over federal cases arising in Puerto Rico.  That court held up ruling on the appeal until after the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell.  On July 8, 2015, the 1st Circuit vacated Judge Perez-Gimenez’s decision and sent the case back to the district court “for further consideration in light of Obergefell v. Hodges.”  In its brief order, the 1st Circuit also stated that it “agrees with the parties’ joint position that the ban [on same-sex marriage] is unconstitutional.”  A week later, the parties filed a “Joint Motion for Entry of Judgment” with the district court, asking for a declaration that Puerto Rico’s statutory ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, and an injunction ordering the commonwealth government not to enforce the ban.

In a  footnote to his opinion, Judge Perez-Gimenez observed that Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla had signed an Executive Order “just hours after the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell” directing Puerto Rico government officials to comply with that ruling, an action that provoked some members of the Puerto Rico legislature to file a lawsuit in the local courts challenging his action.  That case has apparently gone nowhere, and the government of Puerto Rico has been issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples and recognizing their marriages performed elsewhere.

Perez-Gimenez explained that in Obergefell the Supreme Court invoked the 14th Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses to hold that the same-sex marriage bans in the four states within the jurisdiction of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals (Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee) were unconstitutional because they deprived same-sex couples of a fundamental right to marry, thus abridging their liberty and denying equal protection of the laws.  He also noted that some lower federal courts have acknowledged that Obergefell v. Hodges was technically ruling on the state constitutions and laws of those four states, and thus had not automatically mooted cases pending in the 5th, 8th and 11th Circuit Courts of Appeals involving same-sex marriage bans in other states, although those courts quickly issued rulings applying Obergefell as a precedent to the marriage equality cases arising from states under their jurisdiction.

More significantly, Judge Perez-Gimenez claimed that because Puerto Rico is neither a “state” nor an “incorporated territory,” but rather an “unincorporated territory” with extensive self-government rights under a federal statute making it a “commonwealth,” there is some question whether the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell is a binding precedent in Puerto Rico.  He pointed out, that the 14th Amendment provides expressly that “no state” may deprive a person of due process or equal protection, and that because Puerto Rico is not a state, the 14th Amendment’s applicability is not clear.  He cited a variety of older Supreme Court decisions making the general point that all provisions of the U.S. Constitution do not necessarily apply to Puerto Rico in all circumstances.

What he neglected to cite, however, was a case pointed out by Joshua Block, an ACLU attorney who spoke with Chris Geidner of BuzzFeed.com shortly after Perez-Gimenez issue his ruling: a 1976 Supreme Court decision, Examining Board of Engineers v. Flores de Otero, 426 U.S. 572 (1976), in which the Court stated, in an opinion by Justice Harry Blackmun, “The Court’s decisions respecting the rights of the inhabitants of Puerto Rico have been neither unambiguous nor exactly uniform.  The nature of this country’s relationship to Puerto Rico was vigorously debated within the Court as well as within the Congress.  It is clear now, however, that the protections accorded either by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment or the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment apply to residents of Puerto Rico.”

In that case, the Court was considering the constitutionality of a local Puerto Rican statute imposing a citizenship requirement before somebody could be licensed to practice as a civil engineer.  The Court held that the requirement violated equal protection, based on its precedents interpreting both the 5th and 14th Amendments, under which the Court imposes “strict scrutiny” on federal or state laws that discriminate based on alienage.  That is, the government must have a compelling justification before it can deny a right or benefit to somebody because they are not a U.S. citizen.  In a prior case, Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co., 416 U.S. 663 (1974), the Court had specifically held that the due process requirements of the 5th and 14th Amendment also applied to Puerto Rico, limiting the right of the government to restrict the rights of property-owners.

Thus, Judge Perez-Gimenez’s insistence that the Supreme Court’s holding concerning the rights of same-sex couples under the 14th Amendment does not apply to persons present in Puerto Rico appears contrary to a Supreme Court precedent.

Nonetheless, Perez-Gimenez, without acknowledging these Supreme Court decisions, held that “the right to same-sex marriage in Puerto Rico requires: (a) further judicial expression by the U.S. Supreme Court; or (b) the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico; (c) incorporation through legislation enacted by Congress, in the exercise of the powers conferred by the Territorial Clause; or (d) by virtue of any act or statute adopted by the Puerto Rico Legislature that amends or repeals Article 68 [the local law banning same-sex marriage].”

Had there been any doubt that the Obergefell ruling applies to Puerto Rico, the 1st Circuit would have expressed that doubt as part of its consideration of the appeal from Perez-Gimenez’s prior ruling in the case.  Instead, that court expressly stated its agreement with the joint position stated by the parties in that case that the Puerto Rico ban was unconstitutional.  Lambda Legal will promptly appeal this ruling to the 1st Circuit.  In the meantime, presumably the governor’s executive order remains in effect.

Federal Judge Refuses to Dismiss Michigan Transgender ID Case

Posted on: November 17th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

A federal judge has refused to dismiss a claim by six transgender Michiganders that a state policy governing changes of sex designation on driver’s licenses and personal identification cards violates their constitutional privacy rights.  The November 16 ruling in Love v. Johnson, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 154338, 2015 WL 7180471 (E.D. Mich), by Senior U.S. District Judge Nancy G. Edmunds, finds that transgender people have a fundamental right of privacy under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment regarding their gender identity, which right appears to be heavily burdened by the state policy.

In 2011, Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson adopted the following policy:  “An applicant may request to change the sex on their driver license or personal ID card.  The individual must provide a certified birth certificate showing the sex of the applicant.  A birth certificate is the only document accepted as proof to change an individual’s sex.  A U.S. passport cannot be accepted as proof of a sex change.”

According to the plaintiffs, this policy makes it very difficult for many transgender people to obtain such a change.  For one thing, people born in a state that refuses to issue replacement birth certificates for transgender individuals are stuck; they can never get an appropriate state government ID in Michigan.  (Such an ID is required, among other things, for voting.)  For another, people born in states that require gender reassignment surgery as a prerequisite may be stuck as well, since such surgery may not be available to them for financial or other reasons.  Indeed, that is the case in Michigan, which requires people to undergo sex-reassignment surgery to get a new birth certificate.

By contrast, the State Department does not require sex-reassignment surgery as a prerequisite to get an appropriate passport.  The Department will accept a doctor’s letter certifying that the individual “has had appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition,” without any specification of particular treatment.  Many  other states now have similarly permissive requirements to issue driver licenses or non-driver ID cards.

The consequences of carrying a driver’s license or state ID that does not correctly identify the bearer’s gender are many.  Encounters with police officers and security officers are only the most obvious.  In their affidavits opposing the state’s dismissal motion, the plaintiffs recount a wide range of circumstances in which they have encountered demeaning or antagonistic responses when complying with requests to show ID, including when voting or attempting to cash a check.  Every such occasion is an “outing” with respect to information they prefer to keep confidential, and they cite the incidence of violence against transgender people as a looming threat when their status is thus revealed involuntarily.

Judge Edmunds rejected the state’s argument that plaintiffs had not presented a claim of constitutional dimensions.  She found a wide range of precedents, including decisions from the 6th Circuit that would be controlling in a federal case in Michigan, recognizing privacy interests in medical information and sexually-related information.  In addition, she relied on a decision by the 2nd Circuit in a case involving a transgender prison inmate, Powell v. Schriver, where the court recognized in 1999 that the “hostility and intolerance” against transgender people bolstered its conclusion that “the Constitution does indeed protect the right to maintain the confidentiality of one’s transsexualism.”  That court based its ruling on the “bedrock principle” that “there exists in the Constitution a right to privacy protecting the individual interest in avoiding disclosure of personal matters,” and a recognition that a transgender person “potentially exposes herself to discrimination and intolerance” when forced to reveal this information.

Edmunds, appropriating language from the prior 6th Circuit case, found “no reason to doubt that where disclosure of this highly intimate information may fall into the hands of persons harboring such negative feelings, the Policy creates a very real threat to Plaintiffs’ personal security and bodily integrity.”

Since a fundamental right is involved, Edmunds observed that the state could only win this case if it could show a compelling interest, and that the policy was “narrowly drawn to further that interest.,” which requires that it be the least restrictive way to achieve the state’s goal.  In this case, she wrote, the state “vaguely identifies two purported interests — albeit not in the context of a fundamental right — in support of the Policy: (1) ‘maintaining accurate state identification documents’ to ‘promote effective law enforcement’ and, (2) ensuring ‘that the information on the license is consistent with other state records describing the individual.”

The judge found that the challenged policy “bears little, if any, connection to Defendant’s purported interests, and even assuming it did, there is no question that requiring an amended birth certificate to change sex on one’s license is far from the least restrictive means of accomplishing the state’s goal.  Indeed, as Plaintiffs point out, ‘because of the Policy, the sex listed on their licenses fails to match their appearance and the sex associated with their names.’  In this way, the Policy undermines Defendant’s interest in accurately identifying Plaintiffs to ‘promote law enforcement.'”  She pointed to a 2012 decision by an Alaska trial court criticizing a similar policy adopted in that state, which observed that the policy produces licenses that are inaccurate for identification purposes, causing inconvenience and worse in the everyday lives of transgender people.

As to the rejection of a passport as documentation of gender, Judge Edmunds wrote, “Defendant fails to articulate how this two-tiered system promotes the state’s purported interest in ensuring ‘that the information on the license is consistent with other state records describing the individual.'”  Why should a person be required to carry a driver’s license that contradicts her passport as to her gender?

The plaintiffs alleged that at least 25 states allow changes of sex designation on driver licenses without proof of sex reassignment surgery.  “The Court seriously doubts that these states have any less interest in ensuring an accurate record-keeping system,” wrote Edmunds.  Thus, at this point in the case, the court was unwilling to conclude as a matter of law that the policy “narrowly serves the state’s interest in maintaining ‘accurate’ identification documents or promoting effective law enforcement.”

The plaintiffs had made other constitutional claims, but Judge Edmunds decided that it was unnecessary to rule on them at this point.  So long as she had identified one claim on which the plaintiffs were entitled to maintain their legal challenge to the policy, the state’s motion to dismiss should be denied.  “Should future developments require the Court to rule on the viability of Plaintiffs’ remaining claims,” she wrote, “Defendant may seek leave to renew her motion at that time.”

Judge Edmunds’ refusal to dismiss the case puts the plaintiffs in a strong position to negotiate a change to the policy.  If negotiations fail, they can probably count on winning this case through a motion for summary judgment unless the state can come up with something better than its pathetic arguments in support of its motion to dismiss.

The plaintiffs are Ermani Love, Tina Seitz, Codie Stone, E.B., A.M., and K.S.  Their attorneys include Daniel S. Korobkin, Michael J. Steinberg and Jay Kaplan of the ACLU Foundation of Michigan in Detroit, John A. Knight of the ACLU Foundation in Chicago, Illinois, and cooperating attorneys Jacki Lynn Anderson, Michael Frederick Derksen and Steven R. Gilford of the Proskauer Rose law firm’s Chicago office.

Oklahoma Federal District Court Declares Anti-Gay Marriage Amendment Unconstitutional

Posted on: January 15th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

Yet another federal district judge has declared a state constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriages an unconstitutional infringement of rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. On January 14, Senior U.S. District Judge Terence C. Kern, who has been dealing with the case of Bishop v. United States since 2004, held that the constitutional amendment adopted by an overwhelming vote of Oklahoma citizens that year, fails to meeting the deferential “rationality review” test under the Equal Protection Clause.

Although Judge Kern declared the part of the Oklahoma Marriage Amendment that bans same-sex marriages unconstitutional, he stayed his ruling pending an expected appeal by the state. Oklahoma is within the 10th federal appellate circuit, the same one that includes Utah, and thus this appeal will go to the same court that is now considering Utah’s appeal of a similar marriage quality ruling. The Utah case is on an expedited schedule, with initial briefing due in a few weeks and reply briefs due by the end of February. It seems unlikely that Oklahoma would fall in with such a fast-track schedule unless ordered to do so by the 10th Circuit, but handling both cases in one appellate proceeding would make eminent sense, so perhaps if Oklahoma officials decide to move quickly, this case could be consolidated with the pending appeal in Kitchen v. Herbert, making a subsequent trip to the U.S. Supreme Court that much more likely.

The strange name for this case, Bishop v. United States, relates to the unusual way it got started. After the Oklahoma Marriage Amendment was passed, two lesbian couples — Mary Bishop and Sharon Baldwin, and Susan Barton and Gay Phillips — filed a Complaint against both the federal and state governments, seeking a declaration that Sections 2 and 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Parts A and B of the Oklahoma Marriage Amendment, were unconstitutional. Section 2 of DOMA purports to allow states to refuse to give “full faith and credit” to same-sex marriages contracted in other states, while Section 3 provided that the federal government would recognize only different-sex marriages. Part A of the Oklahoma amendment bans same-sex marriage in that state, and Part B refuses recognition to same-sex marriages contracted in other states.

The case took a few procedural twists and turns, including a trip up to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, leading to some changes in the identity of defendants. Ultimately, the summary judgment motion upon which Judge Kern ruled involves a suit between the two couples and Sally Howe Smith, the Tulsa County Clerk, who denied the Bishop couple a marriage license. The Barton couple, being dissatisfied with the pace of events in Oklahoma, have married in Canada and in California (in 2008). A major part of Judge Kern’s opinion considers the Barton couple’s challenge to DOMA, holding that they lack standing to challenge Section 2, because that provision did not compel Oklahoma to refuse to recognize their marriage, and that their challenge to Section 3 is moot because the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional last year in U.S. v. Windsor. Thus, the Barton couple is effectively out of the case.

The Bishop couple, not being married, were only challenging Part A of the Oklahoma marriage amendment, under which Ms. Smith rejected their request for a marriage license. For reasons not explained in Judge Kern’s opinion, they did not challenge the Oklahoma statutes that also ban same-sex marriage, just the constitutional amendment, so that is all Judge Kern rules on, although he notes that much the same constitutional analysis would apply to the question whether the statutes are also unconstitutional.

Judge Kern’s opinion on the Oklahoma amendment goes through three stages.

First, he rejects the argument that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1972 Baker v. Nelson decision is binding on the court. In that case, the Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to the Minnesota ban on same-sex marriage, which had been upheld by the Minnesota Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court dismissed that appeal as not raising a “substantial federal question” and didn’t even bother to hear oral arguments or issue a written opinion explaining its conclusion. Such “summary affirmances” by the Supreme Court are technically binding on lower courts, unless subsequent developments in the law render them obsolete. In this case, Judge Kern, agreeing with Judge Robert Shelby of the U.S. District Court in Utah, held that subsequent developments had rendered Baker of little precedential value. Most significantly, of course, the Supreme Court’s rulings in Romer v. Evans, Lawrence v. Texas, and U.S. v. Windsor have changed the landscape for constitutional analysis of gay rights claims. “It seems clear that what was once deemed an ‘unsubstantial’ question in 1972 would now be deemed ‘substantial’ based on intervening developments in Supreme Court law,” wrote Judge Kern.

Second, the court had to decide what impact the Windsor decision would have. Judge Kern found that Windsor did not decisively tip the balance toward either party. “This Court interprets Windsor as an equal protection case holding that DOMA drew an unconstitutional line between lawfully married opposite-sex couples and lawfully married same-sex couples,” he wrote. He found that the Windsor court “did not apply the familiar equal protection framework,” but instead “based its conclusion on the law’s blatant improper purpose and animus.” He continued, “Both parties argue that Windsor supports their position, and both are right.” That is, Windsor supports the state’s argument that as a matter of history and practice, the regulation of marriage is a state function, not a federal function. But it supports the Bishop couple’s position because “much of the majority’s reasoning regarding the ‘purpose and effect’ of DOMA can be readily applied to the purpose and effect of similar or identical state-law marriage definitions.” As had Judge Shelby in Utah, Judge Kern noted Justice Scalia’s dissenting opinion in Windsor, explaining how the majority’s reasoning in that case would support a same-sex marriage claim.

Kern drew two lessons from the Windsor case. Because it is usual for states to define marriage, state marriage definitions “must be approached differently, and with more caution, than the Supreme Court approached DOMA.” But, when courts are reviewing marriage regulations, they “must be wary of whether ‘defending’ traditional marriage is a guise for impermissible discrimination against same-sex couples.”

Finally, in the third part of the analysis, Kern turned to the 14th Amendment claim in this case. He embraced a much narrower doctrinal analysis than did Judge Shelby in the Utah case, Kitchen v. Herbert. Kern decided that this was a case of sexual orientation discrimination, not sex discrimination, and thus was not subject to heightened scrutiny, and he did not accept the alternative argument that this was a fundamental right to marry case under the due process clause. This means there is no presumption against the constitutionality of the Oklahoma amendment, and it will be upheld if the court can think of any rational justification for it. After reviewing the history of the amendment’s adoption, Judge Kern concluded that it was adopted specifically to exclude same-sex couples from marriage because of moral disapproval of homosexuality by the legislators who proposed it (and presumably the voters who approved it), making it an instance of intentional discrimination with an impermissible motivation. The question was whether there was any other justification, once the court had ruled out “promoting morality,” which has not been a legitimate justification for anti-gay policies at least since the Supreme Court’s 1996 decision striking down Colorado Amendment 2, Romer v. Evans.

Not surprisingly, the court confronted the same arguments that have been raised in other states about promoting responsible procreation and providing an ideal setting for child rearing, but Judge Kern found no merit to these arguments in the context of excluding same-sex couples from marriage. He found that “there is no rational link between excluding same-sex couples from marriage and the goals of encouraging ‘responsible procreation’ among the ‘naturally procreative’ and/or steering the ‘naturally procreative’ toward marriage. Civil marriage in Oklahoma does not have any procreative prerequisites,” he pointed out. As to the argument that allowing same-sex marriages would somehow undermine the stability of different-sex marriages in Oklahoma, he evidently found the assertion laughable, pointing out that despite its same-sex marriage ban, Oklahoma has one of the highest divorce rates in the country. (Unlike, he might have added, Massachusetts, which has one of the lowest divorce rates and has been allowing same-sex marriages for almost a decade.)

While acknowledging that the state has an interest in incentivizing different-sex couples to get married before having kids, he said that this “asserted justification” for excluding same-sex couples from marriage “makes no sense because a same-sex couple’s inability to ‘naturally procreate’ is not a biological distinction of critical importance, in relation to the articulated goal of avoiding children being born out of wedlock. The reality is that same-sex couples, while not able to ‘naturally procreate,’ can and do have children by other means.” Citing 2010 census data showing that “there were 1,280 same-sex ‘households’ in Oklahoma who reported as having ‘their own children under 18 years of ago residing in their household,'” he pointed out that the articulated goal of reducing the number of children born outside of a marital relationship is hindered rather than promoted by a gay marriage ban.

As to the “ideal environment” for raising children argument, Judge Kern said that the state “has not articulated, and the Court cannot discern, a single way that excluding same-sex couples from marriage will ‘promote’ this ‘ideal’ child-rearing environment. Exclusion from marriage does not make it more likely that a same-sex couple desiring children, or already raising children together, will change course and marry an opposite-sex partner (thereby providing the ‘ideal’ child-rearing environment). It is more likely that any potential or existing child will be raised by the same-sex couple without any state-provided marital benefits and without being able to ‘understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community,'” quoting U.S. v. Windsor.

Having rejected all the arguments in support of the ban, Judge Kern turned back to the Supreme Court precedents. Although that court has not yet ruled on the precise question, he found its rulings on related issues compelling. “Supreme Court law now prohibits states from passing laws that are born of animosity toward homosexuals, extends constitutional protection to the moral and sexual choices of homosexuals, and prohibits the federal government from treating opposite-sex and same-sex marriages differently,” he wrote. “There is no precise legal label for what has occurred in Supreme Court jurisprudence beginning with Romer in 1996 and culminating in Windsor in 2013, but this Court knows a rhetorical shift when it sees one.”

“Applying deferential rationality review,” he continued, “the Court searched for a rational link between exclusion of this class from civil marriage and promotion of a legitimate governmental objective. Finding none, the Court’s rationality review reveals Part A [of the Oklahoma Marriage Amendment] as an arbitrary, irrational exclusion of just one class of Oklahoma citizens from a governmental benefit.” He found that the exclusion was “without a legally sufficient justification.”

Thus, he declared Part A unconstitutional. He did not rule on the constitutionality of Part B, which denies recognition to same-sex out of state marriages, because the Bishop couple was not challenging it. Because the Oklahoma marriage statutes bans on same-sex marriages were not challenged, he did not rule on them in this opinion, although as noted above, he observed that the legal analysis of a challenge to those statutes would be essentially the same. However, observing that the Supreme Court recently stayed the Utah marriage ruling pending appeal, he adopted a similar stay, anticipating what would happen if he denied a stay and the state appealed for one.

Thus, same-sex marriage may not actually happen in Oklahoma for some time as this case makes its way through the appellate process, but Judge Kern has provided another nail in the coffin of state bans on same-sex marriages, in an opinion that is relatively modest compared to the more far-ranging opinions written by Judge Shelby and now-retired Judge Vaughn Walker in the California Proposition 8 case. This more modestly reasoned opinion may well be more sustainable on appeal for that very reason, as the Supreme Court tends to prefer moving in smaller rather than large doctrinal steps when addressing politically controversial issues.

Divided 5th Circuit Panel Finds No Constitutional Privacy Protection for Lesbian High School Student

Posted on: June 5th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit voted 2-1 that a lesbian high school student did not have a clearly established constitutional right of informational privacy in her sexual orientation.  Reversing a district court ruling, the panel held that two female high school softball coaches enjoy immunity from constitutional liability for “outing” the girl to her mother, in apparent retaliation for the girl having told another student that one of the coaches was dating a woman.  Both of the judges in the majority, E. Grady Jolly and Edith H. Jones, were appointed to the court by Ronald Reagan during the 1980s.  The dissenter, James E. Graves, Jr., was recently appointed to the court by Barack Obama.  Wyatt v. Fletcher, No. 11-41359 [2013 Westlaw 2371280], May 31, 2013.

The lawsuit was filed by Barbara Wyatt, the mother of the high school student, against the school district, the athletic director, and the two female coaches.  The athletic director was dismissed as a defendant by agreement of the parties, and the 5th Circuit panel’s decision concerns only the motion by the coaches to dismiss the constitutional claims against them on immunity grounds, which was denied by the district court and then appealed by the coaches.  

The doctrine of “qualified immunity” protects government employees from personal liability for actions they take within the scope of their employment unless the plaintiff can show that those actions violate a “clearly established” constitutional right.  In this case, plaintiff S.W. claims to have been interrogated by the coaches in a locked room in violation of her 4th Amendment right against unreasonable search or seizure, and that her informational privacy, protected by the 14th Amendment, was violated when the coaches told her mother that she was dating an older girl.  The district court found that due to contested facts it could not rule on the immunity issue, and denied the coaches’ motion, but also suggested that if certain factual disputes were resolved in favor of the plaintiff, she would have a valid constitutional claim.

The parties sharply contest some of the facts, but for purposes of ruling on a motion by the coaches to dismiss the claims against them on grounds of immunity, the plaintiff’s allegations are supposed to be taken as true, the issue for the court being whether the defendants enjoy immunity if the plaintiff’s factual assertions prove to be accurate.   Judge Graves criticized Judge Jolly’s majority opinion for failing to treat S.W.’s allegations as true and instead adopting a version of the facts more consistent with the coaches’ account of what happened.

More significantly, however, the majority and Graves part company on the question whether S.W. had a clearly protected constitutional right at stake.  Does an individual have a right not to be “outed” as gay by a government employee who comes into possession of that information as part of their job?  The majority insisted that for the constitutional right claimed by S.W. to be “clearly established,” there must be, in effect, a Supreme Court or 5th Circuit ruling holding that teachers questioning a student in a locked room violates the 4th Amendment or that a teacher telling a parent that her child is gay violates the 14th Amendment.  The majority also suggested that the 4th Amendment issue had faded from the case and that the main focus was on the coaches’ disclosure of information to Ms. Wyatt.  Sharply contesting this approach, Judge Graves argued that there is plenty of precedential authority for S.W.’s constitutional claims, including specific statements by appellate courts (including the 5th Circuit) that information about a person’s sexual orientation is the kind of “personal fact” that is entitled to constitutional protection against unauthorized disclosure by the government. 

Graves particularly criticized the majority’s contention that prior cases do not establish a privacy right since they did not involve minors or high school students, or disclosures to the student’s parents, and that students generally enjoy limited privacy rights in high school locker rooms.  On the contrary, wrote Graves, “school children do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.  The majority fails to cite any authority to indicate that the Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure does not extend to high school students.”  As to the information privacy issue, he wrote, “Based on the applicable authority and the coaches’ own admissions that they recognized the private nature of the information, the district court is absolutely correct that sexual orientation would fall within the categories of highly personal information protected by the right to privacy.  The district court correctly held that, while the 5th Circuit has never explicitly held that a student has a right to privacy in keeping his or her sexual orientation confidential, an analysis of precedent compels the finding of such a right.”

The majority, by contrast, largely embracing the coaches’ account of what happened, suggested that Ms. Wyatt already knew that her daughter was gay when she was called into a meeting by the coaches, who intended to inform her about her daughter’s dangerous misbehavior for her own protection from the “older woman” – an 18-year-old who had been invited to attend a softball game by her former girlfriend, who was then allegedly dating one of the female coaches!  (This case sounds like a soap opera, doesn’t it?)  The court also suggested that school officials have a right, unimpeded by constitutional considerations, to inform parents about the sexual activities of their children, and that summoning a student into a locked room to interrogate her about her behavior raises no significant 4th Amendment issues. 

The court’s ruling does not totally end the case, because S.W. had also asserted state law claims against the coaches as well as various claims against the school district that were not subject to this pretrial motion.  But the 5th Circuit’s ruling ends S.W.’s constitutional claim against the two coaches.