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TWO MORE LGBTQ-RELATED CONTROVERSIES DROP OFF THE SUPREME COURT DOCKET

Posted on: January 10th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

As the Supreme Court’s 2017-18 Term began in October, it looked like a banner term for LGBTQ-related cases at the nation’s highest court. Petitions were pending asking the Court to address a wide range of issues, including whether LGBTQ people are protected against discrimination under federal sex discrimination laws covering employment (from Georgia) and educational opportunity (from Wisconsin), whether LGBTQ people in Mississippi had standing to seek a federal order to prevent a viciously anti-gay religiously-motivated law from going into effect, and whether the Texas Supreme Court erred in holding that Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), did not necessarily require a municipal employer to treat same-sex married couples the same as different-sex married couples in their employee benefits plans.  The Court had already granted review in a “gay wedding cake” case from Colorado (Masterpiece Cakeshop, which was argued on December 5), and another petition involving a Washington State florist who refused to provide floral decorations for a same-sex wedding was waiting in the wings.

 

But the hopes for a blockbuster term have rapidly faded. In December, the Court declined to hear the employee benefits case and the Title VII employment discrimination case.  And now in January, the Court has declined to hear the Mississippi cases, Barber v. Bryant and Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant, and the Wisconsin case, Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District, has settled, with the school district agreeing to withdraw its Supreme Court petition.   It may be that the only LGBTQ-related issue that the Court decides this term is the one it heard argued in December: whether a business owner’s religious objections to same-sex marriage or his right to freedom of speech would privilege him to refuse to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.  An opinion expected sometime in the coming months.

On January 8, the Supreme Court refused to review a ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, Barber v. Bryant, 860 F.3d 345 (5th Cir.), petition for rehearing en banc denied, 872 F.3d 671 (2017), which had dismissed a constitutional challenge to Mississippi’s infamous H.B. 1523, a law enacted in 2016 that protects people who discriminate against LGBTQ people because of their religious or moral convictions.  The 5th Circuit had ruled that none of the plaintiffs – either organizations or individuals – in two cases challenging the Mississippi law had “standing” to bring the lawsuits in federal court.

H.B. 1523, which was scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2016, identifies three “religious beliefs or moral convictions” and protects against “discrimination” by the state anybody who acts in accord with those beliefs in a wide range of circumstances. The beliefs, as stated in the statute, are: “(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; (b) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and (c) male (man) or female (woman) refers to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.”  Among other things, the law would protect government officials who rely on these beliefs to deny services to individuals, and would preempt the handful of local municipal laws in the state that ban discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, so that victims of discrimination would have no local law remedy.  Mississippi does not have a state law banning sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, so H.B. 1523 in relation to private businesses and institutions was mainly symbolic when it came to activity taking place outside of the cities of Jackson, Hattiesburg and Oxford, or off the campus of the University of Southern Mississippi.

Two groups of plaintiffs brought constitutional challenges against the law in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, where the case came before Judge Carlton W. Reeves, the same judge who ruled for plaintiffs in a case challenging Mississippi’s ban on same-sex marriage a few years earlier. He issued a preliminary injunction against implementation of H.B. 1523 on June 30, 2016, the day before it was to go into effect, finding that it would violate the 1st Amendment by establishing particular religious beliefs as part of the state’s law.  The plaintiffs also challenged it on Equal Protection grounds. Judge Reeves refused to stay his preliminary injunction, and so did the 5th Circuit.

The state appealed the grant of preliminary injunction to the 5th Circuit, where a unanimous three-judge panel ruled on June 22, 2017, that the district court did not have jurisdiction to issue the injunction because, according to the opinion by Circuit Judge Jerry Smith, none of the plaintiffs could show that they had suffered or were imminently likely to suffer a “concrete and particularized injury in fact,” which was necessary to confer the necessary “standing” to challenge the law in federal court.  In the absence of standing, he wrote, the preliminary injunction must be dissolved and the case dismissed.

The plaintiffs asked the full 5th Circuit to reconsider the ruling en banc, but the circuit judges voted 12-2 not to do so, announcing that result on September 29.  The dissenters, in an opinion by Judge James L. Dennis, bluntly stated that “the panel decision is wrong” and “misconstrues and misapplies the Establishment Clause precedent.”  Indeed, wrote Judge Dennis, “its analysis creates a conflict between our circuit and our sister circuits on the issue of Establishment Clause standing.”

Judge Dennis pressed home the point by citing numerous cases from other circuits which, he held, would support allowing the plaintiffs in this case to seek a preliminary injunction blocking the law from going into effect.  This gave hope to the plaintiffs that they might be able to get the Supreme Court to take the case and reverse the 5th Circuit, since one of the main criteria for the Supreme Court granting review is to resolve a split in authority between the circuit courts on important points of federal law.

However, on January 8 the Court denied the petitions the two plaintiff groups had filed, without any explanation or open dissent, leaving unresolved important questions about how and when people can mount a federal court challenge to a law of this sort. In the meantime, shortly after the 5th Circuit had denied reconsideration, H.B. 1523 went into effect on October 10.

A challenge to H.B. 1523 continues in the District Court before Judge Reeves, as new allegations by the plaintiffs require reconsideration of their standing and place in question, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s June 2017 ruling, Pavan v. Smith, 137 S. Ct. 2075, whether the law imposes unconstitutional burdens on LGBTQ people seeking to exercise their fundamental constitutional rights.

Two days after the Court announced it would not review the 5th Circuit ruling, the parties in Whitaker, 858 F. 3d 1034 (7th Cir. 2017), involving the legal rights of transgender students under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, announced a settlement.  Under their agreement the school district will withdraw its cert petition.

The Supreme Court had been scheduled to hear a similar transgender student case last March, Gloucester County School Bd. v. G. G. ex rel. Grimm, but that case was dropped from the docket after the Trump Administration withdrew a Guidance on Title IX compliance that had been issued by the Obama Administration.  Since the 4th Circuit’s decision in Gavin Grimm’s case had been based on that Guidance rather than on a direct judicial interpretation of the statute, the Supreme Court vacated the 4th Circuit’s ruling and sent the case back to the 4th Circuit for reconsideration. See 137 S. Ct. 1239 (Mar. 6, 2017). That court, in turn, sent it back to the district court, which dismissed the case as moot since Grimm had graduated in the interim.

Ashton Whitaker is a transgender boy who graduated from Tremper High School in the Kenosha School District last June. His case would have given the Supreme Court a second chance to address the Title IX issue.  Whitaker transitioned while in high school and asked to be allowed to use the boys’ restroom facilities, but district officials told him that there was an unwritten policy restricting bathroom use based on biological sex.  He sued the district under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause.  U.S. District Judge Panela Pepper (E.D. Wisconsin) issued a preliminary injunction on Whitaker’s behalf in September 2016, and refused to stay it pending appeal.  See 2016 WL 5239829 (Sept. 22, 2016).

On May 30, 2017, the 7th Circuit upheld Judge Pepper’s ruling, finding that even though the Trump Administration had withdrawn the prior Title IX Guidance, both Title IX and the 14th Amendment require the school to recognize Whitaker as a boy and to allow him to use boys’ restroom facilities.  The school district petitioned the Supreme Court on August 25 to review the 7th Circuit’s decision, even though Whitaker had graduated in June.

In the meantime, Judge Pepper ordered the parties to mediation to attempt a settlement. Whitaker’s graduation in June undoubtedly contributed to the pressure to settle, and the parties asked the Supreme Court several times to extend the deadline for Whitaker to file a formal response to the petition as the negotiations continued.  According to press reports on January 10, the case settled for $800,000 and an agreement that the district would withdraw its petition.

The settlement and withdrawal of the petition leaves the 7th Circuit’s opinion standing as the first federal circuit court ruling to hold on the merits that Title IX and the 14th Amendment require public schools to respect the gender identity of their students and to allow students to use sex-designated facilities consistent with their gender identity.  However, lacking a Supreme Court ruling on the point this decision is only binding in the three states of the 7th Circuit: Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana, the same three states bound by another 7th Circuit last year holding that employment discrimination because of sexual orientation violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

 

Supreme Court Will Not Decide Transgender Title IX Case This Term

Posted on: March 7th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Supreme Court will not decide this term whether Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and an Education Department regulation, 34 C.F.R. Section 106.33, require schools that receive federal money to allow transgender students to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity. Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., No. 16-273 (Summary Disposition, March 6, 2017).  Title IX states that schools may not discriminate because of sex if they get federal money, and the regulation allows schools to provide separate restroom and locker room facilities for boys and girls so long as they are “equal.”

Responding to a February 22 letter from the Trump Administration, advising the Court that the Education and Justice Departments had “withdrawn” two federal agency letters issued during the Obama Administration interpreting the statute and regulation to require allowing transgender students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity, the Court announced on March 6 that it was “vacating” the decision by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of transgender high school student Gavin Grimm, which it had previously agreed to review, and sending the case back to the 4th Circuit for “further consideration in light of the guidance document issued by the Department of Education and Department of Justice.”  The case had been scheduled for argument on March 28.

This result was not unexpected, although both parties in the case, Grimm and the Gloucester County, Virginia, School District, had asked the Court to keep the case on the docket and decide whether Title IX and the bathroom regulation required the district to let Grimm use boys’ restrooms at the high school. Represented by the ACLU LGBT Rights Project, Grimm urged the Court to hold the previously scheduled hearing.  The school district urged the Court to delay the hearing, in order to give the Trump Administration an opportunity to weigh in formally, but then to hear and decide the case.  Had the Court granted the school district’s request, the case might have been argued before the end of the Court’s current term or delayed to next fall.

The case dates back to 2015, when Grimm and his mother had met with school administrators during the summer prior to his sophomore year to tell them about his gender transition and they had agreed to let him use the boys’ restrooms, which he did for several weeks with no problems. Complaints by parents led the school board to adopt a resolution requiring students to use restrooms consistent with the sex indicated on their birth certificates – so-called “biological sex” – regardless of their gender identity.  The school also provided an alternative, unacceptable to Grimm, of using a single-user restroom that he found inconvenient and stigmatizing.

Grimm sued the school district, alleging a violation of his rights under Title IX and the 14th Amendment. The Education Department sent a letter at the request of the ACLU informing the district court that the Department interpreted Title IX and the bathroom regulation as “generally” requiring schools to let transgender students use facilities consistent with their gender identity.  Following the lead of several federal courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission interpreting other federal statutes that forbid sex discrimination, the Obama Administration took the position that laws against sex discrimination protect people from discrimination because of their gender identity.

The district judge, Robert Doumar, rejected the Obama Administration’s interpretation and granted the school district’s motion to dismiss the Title IX claim on September 17, 2015 (132 F. Supp. 3d 736), while reserving judgment on Grimm’s alternative claim that the policy violated his right to equal protection of the law guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.  Doumar opined that when adopting Title IX in 1972, Congress had not intended to forbid gender identity discrimination, notwithstanding the Obama Administration’s more recent interpretation of the statute.

The ACLU appealed Doumar’s ruling to the Richmond-based 4th Circuit, where a three-judge panel voted 2-1 on April 19, 2016 (822 F.3d 709), to reverse Judge Doumar’s decision.  The panel, applying a Supreme Court precedent called the Auer Doctrine, held that the district court should have deferred to the Obama Administration’s interpretation of the bathroom regulation because the regulation was ambiguous as to how transgender students should be accommodated and the court considered the Obama Administration’s interpretation to be “reasonable.”  A dissenting judge agreed with Judge Doumar that Title IX did not forbid the school district’s policy. The panel voted 2-1 to deny the school district’s motion for rehearing by the full 4th Circuit bench on May 31 (824 F.3d 450).

Shortly after the 4th Circuit issued its decision, the Education and Justice Departments sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to school administrators nationwide, advising them that the government would interpret Title IX to protect transgender students and providing detailed guidance on compliance with that requirement.  The letter informed recipients that failure to comply might subject them to Education Department investigations and possible loss of eligibility for federal funding.  This letter stirred up a storm of protest led by state officials in Texas, who filed a lawsuit joined by ten other states challenging the Obama Administration’s interpretation as inappropriate.  Subsequently another lawsuit was filed in Nebraska by state officials joined by several other states making the same argument.

Judge Doumar reacted quickly to the 4th Circuit’s reversal of his ruling, issuing a preliminary injunction on June 23 requiring the school district to allow Grimm to use boys’ restrooms while the case proceeded on the merits (2016 WL 3581852).  The 4th Circuit panel voted on July 12 to deny the school district’s motion to stay the preliminary injunction, but on August 3 the Supreme Court granted an emergency motion by the school district to stay the injunction while the district petitioned the Supreme Court to review the 4th Circuit’s decision (136 S. Ct. 2442).

It takes five votes on the Supreme Court to grant a stay of a lower court ruling pending appeal. Usually the Court issues no written opinion explaining why it is granting a stay.  In this case, however, Justice Stephen Breyer issued a one-paragraph statement explaining that he had voted for the stay as a “courtesy,” citing an earlier case in which the conservative justices (then numbering five) had refused to extend such a “courtesy” and grant a stay of execution to a death row inmate in a case presenting a serious 8th Amendment challenge to his death sentence.  Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan indicated that they would have denied the motion, so all four of the conservative justices had voted for the stay.  Since it takes five votes to grant a stay but only four votes to grant a petition for certiorari (a request to the Court to review a lower court decision), it was clear to all the justices that the school district’s subsequent petition for review would be granted, and it was, in part, on October 28 (137 S. Ct. 369).

Meanwhile, however, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor in Wichita Falls, Texas, had granted a “nationwide” preliminary injunction later in August in the Texas case challenging the Obama Administration guidance, blocking federal agencies from undertaking any new investigations or initiating any new cases involving gender identity discrimination claims under Title IX. Texas v. United States, 2016 WL 4426495 (N.D. Tex. Aug. 21, 2016).  The Obama Administration filed an appeal with the Houston-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, asking that court to cut down the scope of O’Connor’s injunction to cover just the states that had joined that lawsuit, pending litigation on the merits in that case.

The Gloucester school district’s petition for certiorari asked the Supreme Court to consider three questions: whether its doctrine of deferral to agency interpretations of regulations should be abandoned; whether, assuming the doctrine was retained, it should be applied in the case of an “unpublished” letter submitted by the agency in response to a particular lawsuit, and finally whether the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX and the regulation were correct.  The Court agreed only to address the second and third questions.

Donald Trump was elected a week later. During the election campaign, he stated that he would be revoking Obama Administration executive orders and administrative actions, so the election quickly led to speculation that the Gloucester County case would be affected by the new administration’s actions, since the Guidance had been subjected to strong criticism by Republicans.  This seemed certain after Trump announced that he would nominate Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama to be Attorney General, as Sessions has a long history of opposition to LGBT rights.  The announcement that Trump would nominate Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education fueled the speculation further, since her family was notorious for giving substantial financial support to anti-LGBT organizations.  It seemed unlikely that the Obama Administration’s Title IX Guidance would survive very long in a Trump Administration.

The other shoe dropped on February 22, just days before the deadline for submission of amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs on behalf of Gavin Grimm.   The Solicitor General’s office had not filed a brief in support of the school district at the earlier deadline, and there had been hope that the government would file a brief on behalf of Grimm or just stay out of the case.  According to numerous press reports, Secretary DeVos, who reportedly does not share her family’s anti-gay sentiments, had not wanted to withdraw the Guidance, but Attorney General Sessions insisted that the Obama Administration letters should be withdrawn, and Trump sided with Sessions in a White House showdown over the issue.

The February 22 “Dear Colleagues” letter was curiously contradictory, however. While announcing that the prior letters were “withdrawn” and their interpretation would not be followed by the government, the letter did not take a position directly on whether Title IX applied to gender identity discrimination claims.  Instead, it said that further study was needed on the Title IX issue, while asserting that the question of bathroom access should be left to states and local school boards and that schools were still obligated by Title IX not to discriminate against any students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  The letter was seemingly an attempt to compromise between DeVos’s position against bullying and discrimination and Sessions’ opposition to a broad reading of Title IX to encompass gender identity discrimination claims.  White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that the question of Title IX’s interpretation was still being considered by the administration.

In any event, the Obama Administration interpretation to which the 4th Circuit panel had deferred was clearly no longer operative, effectively rendering moot the first question on which the Supreme Court had granted review.  Although the parties urged the Court to continue with the case and address the second question, it was not surprising that the Court decided not to do so.

The usual role of the Supreme Court is to decide whether to affirm or reverse a ruling on the merits of a case by the lower court. In this case, however, the 4th Circuit had not issued a ruling on the merits as such, since the basis for its ruling was deference to an administrative interpretation.  The 4th Circuit held that the Obama Administration’s interpretation was “reasonable,” but not that it was the only correct interpretation of the regulation or the statute.  The only ruling on the merits in the case so far is Judge Doumar’s original 2015 ruling that Grimm’s complaint failed to state a valid claim under Title IX.  Thus, it was not particularly surprising that the Supreme Court would reject the parties’ request to hear and decide the issue of interpretation of Title IX, and instead to send it back to the 4th Circuit to reconsider in light of the February 22 letter.  The Court usually grants review because there are conflicting rulings in the courts of appeals that need to be resolved. Here there are no such conflicting rulings under Title IX and the bathroom regulation, since the only other decisions on this question are by federal trial courts.

After issuing its February 22 letter, the Justice Department abandoned its appeal of the scope of Judge O’Connor’s preliminary injunction in the Texas case and asked the 5th Circuit to cancel a scheduled argument, which it did.  Furthermore, withdrawal of the Obama Administration Guidance rendered the Texas v. U.S. case moot, since the relief sought by the plaintiffs was a declaration that the Guidance was invalid, so Judge O’Connor will dissolve his injunction and the case will be withdrawn, as will be the Nebraska case.

In the meantime, there are several other relevant cases pending. The Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit and the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit will be considering appeals from district court rulings on transgender student rights from Ohio and Pennsylvania, there are cases pending before trial courts elsewhere, and there are multiple lawsuits pending challenging North Carolina’s H.B. 2, which among other things mandates that transgender people in that state use public restrooms consistent with their birth certificates.  One case challenging H.B. 2 was filed by the Obama Justice Department and may be abandoned by the Trump Administration.  But the 4th Circuit is shortly to hear arguments on an appeal filed by three transgender plaintiffs who are students or staff members at the University of North Carolina, who won a preliminary injunction when the trial judge in their case, filed by the ACLU and Lambda Legal, deferred to the Obama Administration Guidance as required by the 4th Circuit’s ruling in Grimm’s case, but declined to rule on the plaintiffs’ claim that H.B. 2 also violated their constitutional rights.  Carcano v. McCrory, 2016 WL 4508192 (M.D.N.C. Aug. 26, 2016). The appeal is focused on their constitutional claim and their argument that the preliminary injunction, which was narrowly focused on the three of them, should have been broadly applied to all transgender people affected by H.B. 2.  The case pending in the 3rd Circuit also focuses on the constitutional claim, as a trial judge in Pittsburgh ruled that a western Pennsylvania school district violated the 14th Amendment by adopting a resolution forbidding three transgender high school students from using restrooms consistent with their gender identity. Evancho v. Pine-Richland School District, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26767, 2017 WL 770619 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 27, 2017).

Meanwhile, Gavin Grimm is scheduled to graduate at the end of this spring semester, which may moot his case since he was seeking injunctive relief to allow him to use the boys’ restrooms, unless the court is convinced that a live controversy still exists because the school district’s policy continues in effect and will still prevent Grimm from using the boys’ restrooms if he come to the school to attend alumni events.

It seems likely that whatever happens next in the Gavin Grimm case, the issue of transgender people and their access to gender-identity-consistent public facilities will continue to be litigated in many federal courts in the months ahead, and may be back to the Supreme Court soon, perhaps as early as its 2017-18 Term. By then, the Court is likely to be back to a five-member conservative majority, assuming the Senate either confirms Trump’s nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch or, if that stalls, another conservative nominee.  It is even possible that Trump may have a second vacancy to fill before this issue gets back to the Court, in which case the plaintiffs may face very long odds against success.