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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.

 

Federal Court Will Enjoin Part of Mississippi H.B. 1523 to Enforce Equal Protection Rights of Same-Sex Couples

Posted on: June 28th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

 

U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves announced on June 27 that he will order Mississippi officials not to enforce part of H.B. 1523, a recently-enacted state law scheduled to go into effect on July 1, because it would circumvent the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling requiring states to afford equal marriage rights to same-sex couples.   The challenged provision,  Section 3(8)(a), allows Circuit Court Clerks to “recuse” themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples if they have a sincere religious belief opposed to same-sex marriage.  The provision says that same-sex couples will be entitled to get marriage licenses, but provides no mechanism to make sure that they can get them in case there is nobody in a particular clerk’s office who has not recused himself or herself.  The Order is published as Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83036 (S.D. Miss., June 27, 2016).

 

Recalling a 1962 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, Meredith v. Fair, 305 F.2d 343, which “chastised our State for ‘a carefully calculated campaign of delay and masterly inactivity” in response to federal  desegregation orders, Judge Reeves announced that he would “reopen” the Mississippi marriage equality case “for the parties to confer about how to provide clerks with actual notice of the Permanent injunction” and for the parties “to confer on appropriate language to include in an Amended Permanent Injunction.”

 

Robbie Kaplan, a New York attorney who represents the Campaign for Southern Equality, the plaintiff in the Mississippi case, had filed a motion seeking to reopen the case in order to ensure that same-sex couples in the state are not subjected to unconstitutional discrimination because of H.B. 1523.  A large team of pro-bono attorneys from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, a New York firm where Kaplan is a partner, is working on the case together with attorneys from several southern states including local counsel from Mississippi.

 

Reeves is also considering two other lawsuits involving challenges and defenses to the constitutionality of other provisions of H.B. 1523, which was explicitly enacted in response to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision and which shelters public employees and private businesses from any liability or adverse consequences if they refuse to deal with same-sex couples based on their religious beliefs.   The law also allows government offices and businesses to deny transgender people appropriate access to restrooms and other gender-designated facilities, once again based on a “sincere religious belief” that a person’s gender is immutably determined at birth.  Reeves is expected to issue rulings in those cases shortly.

 

Judge Reeves, an African-American man who was appointed to the district court by President Barack Obama, presided over the Mississippi marriage equality case, Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant, issuing a ruling in November 2014 that the state’s constitutional and statutory bans on same-sex marriage violate the 14th Amendment.  He issued a preliminary injunction to that effect on November 25, which was stayed while the state appealed to the 5th Circuit, which, after hearing oral argument in this and cases from other states in the circuit in January 2015, put a hold on the appeal until the Supreme Court decided the Obergefell case.

 

The Obergefell decision, announced on June 26, 2015, said that same-sex couples were entitled to enter into civil marriages “on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.” “This resolved the issue nationwide,” wrote Reeves, who subsequently issued a Permanent Injunction in response to an order from the 5th Circuit (see 791 F.3d 625) directing him to “act expeditiously on remand and enter final judgment.”  Reeves’ Permanent Injunction ordered that the state “and all its agents, officers, employees, and subsidiaries, and the Circuit Clerk of Hinds County and all her agents, officers, and employees, are permanently enjoined from enforcing Section 263A of the Mississippi Constitution and Mississippi Code Section 93-1-1(2).”

 

Shortly after Reeves issued his injunction, the Mississippi Attorney General’s office advised all 82 Circuit Court clerks to grant marriage licenses “to same-sex couples on the same terms and conditions accorded to couples of the opposite sex.” But in response to this motion, the State argued that the only Circuit Court Clerk bound by the court’s injunction was the Hinds County Clerk, who was named in that Order, because the clerks are county employees rather than state employees.

 

When the Mississippi legislature convened for its 2016 session, it promptly passed H.B. 1523, which was clearly intended to send a message that the state would happily tolerate and protect discrimination against same-sex couples and LGBT individuals by privileging those with anti-gay religious beliefs. This was largely symbolic when it came to discrimination by private businesses and landlords, since Mississippi law does not forbid discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations, and it was only after H.B. 1523 was enacted that the city of Jackson became the first jurisdiction in the state to legislate against such discrimination.  Thus, at the time H.B. 1523 was passed, this “privilege” was not necessary to “protect” free exercise of anti-gay religious views by Mississippians.

 

The provisions about bathroom use and marriage licenses threatened to have more significant practical effect, setting up a clash with federal constitutional and statutory requirements. Over the past few months, issue has been joined in several lawsuits in other federal districts contesting whether federal sex discrimination laws override state laws and require employers not to discriminate against LGBT people or deny bathroom access to transgender employees and students. As Judge Reeves pointed out in his June 27 Order, states “lack authority to nullify a federal right or cause of action they believe is inconsistent with their local policies.”  In this case, the marriage license provision clearly violates federal constitutional requirements established in the Obergefell decision.

 

“In H.B. 1523,” wrote Reeves, “the State is permitting the differential treatment to be carried out by individual clerks. A statewide policy has been ‘pushed down’ to an individual-level policy.  But the alleged constitutional infirmity is the same.  The question remains whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires marriage licenses to be granted (and out-of-state marriage licenses to be recognized) to same-sex couples on identical terms as they are to opposite-sex couples.”  And the precise question before Reeves was whether it was necessary to modify his 2015 injunction to make it clear that all government employees involved in the marriage process, including the State Registrar and the Circuit Court Clerks, are bound by his injunction.

 

Reeves concluded that the Registrar was clearly bound, but that it would be preferable to make it more explicit that the Circuit Court Clerks are bound as well, since a violation of the injunction would subject them to potential liability, including the costs of defending lawsuits against them and possible contempt penalties if they refused to obey the court’s Order.

 

Much of his June 27 Order was devoted to technical procedural and jurisdictional issues, which he resolved in every instance against the state defendants, from Governor Phil Bryant on down.

 

He also agreed with the plaintiffs that they should be able to conduct discovery against the State Registrar in order to learn which Clerks had filed forms seeking to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses. The Registrar, who is supposed to receive those forms under H.B. 1523, had been claiming that since she was not a party to the marriage lawsuit, she was not bound by the court’s injunction and thus not subject to a discovery demand in this case.  Reeves asserted that “there are good reasons to permit discovery from the Registrar strictly for purposes of enforcing the Permanent Injunction.  In 2016, Mississippi responded to Obergefell by creating a new way to treat same-sex couples differently than opposite-sex couples.  That the differential treatment is now pushed down to county employees should be irrelevant for discovery purposes.  The State will have the documents that show exactly where and by whom the differential treatment it authorized in HB 1523 will now occur.  The Plaintiffs should be able to receive that post-judgment discovery from an appropriate State employee, like the Registrar.”

 

Reeves rejected the technical argument that the State, as such, was not a party to the lawsuit. For technical reasons of constitutional law, the State as an entity can’t be sued in federal court by its citizens without its consent, so state officials rather than the State itself are designated as defendants in cases like the marriage equality lawsuit.  But this is really a technicality.  The Attorney General defended the marriage ban using state funds and employees and, Reeves pointed out, it is well established that a federal court “may enjoin the implementation of an official state policy” because the state is “the real party in interest” even though the lawsuit was brought against named state officials.

 

Reeves signaled that the amended form of the Injunction will add language from the Obergefell decision to make clear that same-sex couples are entitled to the same treatment as different-sex couples because, as the 5th Circuit said last July, Obergefell “is the law of the land and, consequently, the law of this circuit.”

 

“Mississippi’s elected officials may disagree with Obergefell, of course, and may express that disagreement as they see fit – by advocating for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision, for example,” wrote Reeves. “But the marriage license issue will not be adjudicated anew after every legislative session.  And the judiciary will remain vigilant whenever a named party to an injunction is accused of circumventing that injunction, directly or indirectly.”

 

Federal Court Enjoins Enforcement of Mississippi’s Ban on Adoptions by Married Same-Sex Couples

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

 

Finding that the ability of a couple to adopt a child is a “benefit” of marriage, U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan, III, ruled on March 31 in Campaign for Southern Equality v. Mississippi Department of Human Services, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43897 (S.D. Miss.), that Mississippi’s statutory ban on adoptions by same-sex couples probably violates the 14th Amendment under the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.  Although Judge Jordan found that some of the plaintiffs and many of the defendants had to be dismissed from the case on grounds of standing and jurisdiction, he concluded that other plaintiffs did have standing to challenge the law in court, and that the Executive Director of the state’s Department of Human Services was an appropriate defendant to be ordered on behalf of the state not to enforce the ban while the lawsuit is pending.  The ruling came as the state’s legislature was putting finishing touches on a so-called religious-freedom bill intended to protect persons or businesses with religious objections to same-sex marriage or sex relations between anyone other than a man and a woman united in marriage from any adverse consequences at the hand of the government or any liability for refusing to provide goods or services in connection with same-sex marriages.  The constitutionality of such a measure is much disputed in light of Obergefell.

Among the plaintiffs are same-sex couples who sought second-parent adoptions of children born to one member of the couple by her same-sex partner, and same-sex couples who sought to adopt children not biologically related to either of them through the foster care system. The court found that one of the couples was not married at the time the complaint was filed, and dismissed them from the case for lack of standing, since the state denies adoptions to all unmarried couples, whether same-sex or different-sex.  However, the court concluded that all of the remaining couples had standing to challenge the statutory ban in court, since an employee of the Department had told one of the couples in response to an inquiry about the foster-care route that the Department would continue enforcing the ban despite the Supreme Court’s June 26, 2015, ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which held that states are required under the 14th Amendment to allow same-sex couples to marry and to accord official recognition to same-sex marriages contracted in other jurisdictions. The organizational plaintiffs, Campaign for Southern Equality and Family Equality Council, met the test for associational standing by alleging that they had members who were married same-sex couples in Mississippi with interests in adoption similar to the named plaintiffs.

The court found, however, that neither the governor nor the attorney general were appropriate defendants, since neither of those state officials plays any role in administering the adoption system. On different grounds, the court dismissed from the case several judges who were named as defendants, finding that judges whose role is to adjudicate cases are not “adverse parties” to plaintiffs seeking to invalidate a state statute.  The Department of Human Services could not itself be sued, as the 11th Amendment as construed by the Supreme Court gives state agencies general immunity from being sued by citizens of the state in federal court for violations of constitutional rights.  However, the Supreme Court has allowed a “work around” for that constitutional barrier, by allowing suits against the officials charged with the direction of an agency that plays a role in the enforcement of a challenged statute.  Judge Jordan found that the Department plays a significant role in administering the foster care system and in investigating adoption petitions and making recommendations to the courts, and thus the Director of the Department would be an appropriate defendant.  While noting that the Department has stated recently that it would not stand in the way of a same-sex couple adopting a child, the court found there was sufficient evidence in the record that same-sex couples continue to be discouraged from applying for the foster care program to discount this statement for purposes of determining who can be sued in this case, stating that “the record before the Court indicates that [the Department] has interfered with same-sex adoptions after Obergefell.”

Turning to the merits of the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, the court had to confront the doctrinal mysteries of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion for the Supreme Court in Obergefell.  While that opinion makes clear that the right to marry as such is a fundamental right under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, and that exclusion of same-sex couples from marrying violates that fundamental right, the Court never directly addressed the question of what level of judicial review might be appropriate for claims that a same-sex couple is being denied any particular benefit of marriage, which would determine what kind of justification a state would have to present for treating same-sex couples differently from different-sex couples.

“While the majority’s approach [in Obergefell] could cause confusion if applied in lower courts to future cases involving marriage-related benefits,” wrote Jordan, “it evidences the majority’s intent for sweeping change.  For example, the majority clearly holds that marriage itself is a fundamental right when addressing the due-process issue.  In the equal-protection context, that would require strict scrutiny.  But the opinion also addresses the benefits of marriage, noting that marriage and those varied rights associated with it are recognized as a ‘unified whole.’  And it further states that ‘the marriage laws enforced by the respondents are in essence unequal: same-sex couples are denied all the benefit afforded to opposite-sex couples %and% are barred from exercising a fundamental right.’”

“Of course the Court did not state whether these other benefits are fundamental rights or whether gays are a suspect class,” Judge Jordan continued. “Had the classification not been suspect and the benefits not fundamental, then rational-basis review would have followed.  It did not.  Instead, it seems clear the Court applied something greater than rational-basis review.  Indeed, the majority never discusses the states’ reasons for adopting their bans on gay marriage and never mentions the word ‘rational.’”  Thus, from a doctrinal standpoint, the Obergefell opinion is in some sense incomplete.  But it was not puzzling enough to deter Judge Jordan from moving ahead to the logical result.

“While it may be hard to discern a precise test,” he wrote, “the Court extended its holding to marriage-related benefits – which includes the right to adopt. And it did so despite those who urged restraint while marriage-related benefits cases worked their way through the lower courts.  According to the majority, ‘Were the Court to stay its hand to allow slower, case-by-case determination of the required availability of specific public benefits to same-sex couples, it still would deny gays and lesbians many rights and responsibilities intertwined with marriage.’”  Judge Jordan noted Chief Justice John Roberts’ response to this point in his dissenting opinion, including his contention that as a result of the Court’s ruling “those more selective claims will not arise now that the Court has taken the drastic step of requiring every State to license and recognize marriage between same-sex couples.”  (In all these quotations from Obergefell, the emphases were added by Judge Jordan.)

“In sum,” wrote Jordan, “the majority opinion foreclosed litigation over laws interfering with the right to marry and ‘rights and responsibilities intertwined with marriage.’ It also seems highly unlikely that the same court that held a state cannot ban gay marriage because it would deny benefits – expressly including the right to adopt – would then conclude that married gay couples can be denied the very same benefits.”  The conclusion is obvious: Obergefell decides this case.  “The majority of the United States Supreme Court dictates the law of the land,” wrote Jordan, “and lower courts are bound to follow it,” which means the Mississippi statutory ban on same-sex couples adopting children violates the Equal Protection Clause.

In his March 31 decision Judge Jordan was not rendering a final ruling on the merits, but rather responding to the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the statutory ban while the case continues. The first step of determining whether plaintiffs can get their injunction requires the court to determine whether they are likely to win on the merits, and the foregoing discussion was directed to that point.  Next Jordan considered whether allowing the ban to continue would inflict irreparable harm on the plaintiffs, which is simply answered by noting that monetary damages could not compensate a delay in being allowed to adopt a child and that a denial of equal protection of the laws is always considered an irreparable injury.  Since the current position of the Department is that “it will not impede an otherwise valid gay adoption,” it was clear that the “balance of harms” between the parties favors plaintiffs, as does the factor of how the public interest would be affected by granting or denying an injunction.  Thus, the court concluded that an injunction should be issued.  “The Executive Director of DHS is hereby preliminarily enjoined from enforcing Mississippi Code section 93-17-3(5),” ordered the court.  There was no immediate word whether the state would attempt to appeal this grant of preliminary relief.  Perhaps the court’s opinion will suffice to convince state officials that “marriage equality” as decreed by the Supreme Court means equality in all respects, invalidating any state law or policy that would treat same-sex married couples differently from different-sex married couples.

Since Obergefell dealt with benefits of marriage and did not rule on the rights, if any, of unmarried same-sex couples, it would not provide a direct precedent concerning attempted second-parent adoptions or adoptions out of foster care by unmarried same-sex couples, which is why one of the plaintiff couples was dismissed from the case, even though they informed the court that they had married after the complaint was filed.  And it would be difficult to argue that unmarried same-sex couples are “similarly situated” to married couples in relation to the adoption of children, at least for purposes of an Equal Protection challenge.  Everybody involved in the case, it appears, agrees that the sole issue is whether the challenged statute can be used to deny married same-sex couples a benefit afforded to married different-sex couples.

Lead attorney for the plaintiffs is Roberta “Robbie” Kaplan, a partner in the New York City office of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, who also represented Campaign for Southern Equality in its successful legal challenge to Mississippi’s ban on same-sex marriage and Edith Windsor in her successful legal challenge to Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act.

The Dominoes Continue to Fall as Federal Courts Strike Arkansas and Mississippi Marriage Bans

Posted on: November 26th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

On November 25, 2014, U.S. district court judges in Arkansas and Mississippi issued rulings declaring unconstitutional the constitutional and statutory bans on same-sex marriage in those states.  In Arkansas, District Judge Kristine G. Baker stayed her ruling pending an appeal to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals by the state, but the situation was complicated by another marriage equality case pending before the state’s Supreme Court, which may render this ruling superfluous depending on timing.  In addition, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, a Democrat who personally supports same-sex marriage but who had claimed to be defending the ban as his duty, indicated that he would confer over the Thanksgiving holiday with the incoming Republican Attorney General, Leslie Rutlage, an opponent of same-sex marriage, before deciding whether to appeal.  In Mississippi, District Judge Carlton W. Reeves granted the state a two-week stay during which it may seek a further stay pending appeal from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, where marriage equality cases from Texas and Louisiana are scheduled for argument on January 9.  There was little doubt that the state would immediately seek a stay from the 5th Circuit.

Both of the judges who ruled on November 25 were appointed by President Barack Obama and seated during his first term of office, Judge Reeves in 2010 and Judge Baker in 2012.

Although dozens of federal district judges have issued rulings in similar cases over the past year, neither of these judges skimped on their opinions, exploring both procedural and substantive issues in depth, as their opinions will likely be appealed to circuit courts that have yet to weigh in on the questions presented.  Both judges were undeterred by the recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, rejecting challenges to the marriage bans in Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky.  Both judges were not persuaded by 6th Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton’s reliance on the Supreme Court’s 1972 summary affirmance of negative ruling by the Minnesota Supreme Court as a currently binding precedent, finding that it had been superseded by more recent developments in the Supreme Court, and emphasizing that the overwhelming majority of federal courts considering this issue over the past year have found Baker to be no impediment to striking down the bans.

Both judges were writing their opinions against the obstacles of circuit court rulings that preluded certain doctrinal moves.  In the 8th Circuit, a 2006 decision rejecting a challenge to Nebraska’s constitutional amendment included language indicating that the court believed the amendment would survive rational basis review, which that court deemed the appropriate standard for evaluating claims of sexual orientation discrimination.  Undeterred, Judge Baker followed the lead of 9th Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon, whose concurring opinion in the Nevada/Idaho marriage ruling of October 7 argued that bans on same-sex marriage are a form of sex discrimination, and thus merit heightened scrutiny.  In the 5th Circuit, prior precedents also reject heightened scrutiny for sexual orientation discrimination claims.  This did not deter Judge Reeves, who found that the Mississippi marriage ban fails even the usually deferential rational basis test.

Both judges also ruled against the same-sex marriage bans under an alternative Due Process theory, finding that Supreme Court precedents recognize a fundamental constitutional right to marry as an individual right of every citizen, subjecting to strict scrutiny any attempt by the state to interfere with the choice of marital partner.  A law that does not survive rational basis review or heightened scrutiny cannot, by definition, survive strict scrutiny, the most demanding level of judicial review.

Both judges were also careful to address various procedural and jurisdictional arguments raised by the state defendants, systematically and respectfully analyzing and then rejecting them.  Judge Baker confronted a particularly complicated argument, as the Arkansas Supreme Court held oral arguments less than a week earlier in the state’s appeal of a trial judge’s marriage equality ruling from earlier in 2014, and there is some argument that federal courts should abstain from deciding issues that are pending in the state courts.  Judge Baker demonstrated that there were distinctions between the cases that counseled against federal court abstention, not least that the plaintiffs in the federal case were not participating in the state case.  Both judges emphasized the duty of federal courts to deal with federal constitutional claims when they are appropriately presented by plaintiffs have meet the standing requirements.

The plaintiffs in the Arkansas case had presented Judge Baker with a panoply of constitutional arguments, and she carefully picked among them, rejecting — as have some other judges in recent decisions — the argument that the state’s failure to recognize marriages contracted out of state violates the constitutional right to travel between the states, as well as rejecting the plaintiff’s sexual orientation discrimination claim.  However, she found that while the plaintiffs had met all the tests required to obtain an injunction against the state, the Supreme Court’s issuance of a stay in January in the Utah case set the path for her response to the state’s request in this case to keep the ruling from going into effect while the state appeals.  However, she wrote, “If no timely notice of appeal is filed, this injunction shall take immediate effect upon the expiration of the time for filing a notice of appeal.”

Judge Reeves’ decision was substantially longer than Judge Baker’s, because he decided, despite 5th Circuit precedent, to take on the question whether sexual orientation discrimination claims should be subjected to heightened or strict scrutiny.  One suspects this was a reaction to extraordinary briefing on the question provided by the plaintiffs and their amici.  As a result, Reeves’ opinion includes within it a virtual monograph on the history of anti-gay discrimination in Mississippi, leading him to explicitly counter the suggestion by some judges that gay marriage litigants don’t need the assistance of the federal courts since they can obtain the right to marry through the ordinary political process.  While that might be possible someday in Michigan, for example, wrote Reeves, it seemed unlikely in Mississippi.

“A common argument against homosexual equality is that the gay and lesbian community is so popular that it needs no judicial protection from the will of the majority,” wrote Reeves.  “In this vein, the U.S. District Court for Nevada, which upheld that state’s same-sex marriage ban until the Ninth Circuit reversed, found that ‘the public media are flooded with editorial, commercial, and artistic messages urging the acceptance of homosexuals.’  He noted that the President now supports same-sex marriage.  But pointing to statements of popular support, those of individual politicians, or even the national ‘climate’ is not the standard.  The standard is whether homosexuals in Mississippi have ‘the strength to politically protect themselves from wrongful discrimination.’  Much of that discrimination, of course, happens at the state and local levels, far from celebrities and national politicians.  On this question, it can only be concluded the Mississippi’s gay and lesbian community does not have the requisite political strength to protect itself from wrongful discrimination.”  He noted particularly that the Mississippi anti-gay marriage amendment passed by the largest margin of any of the numerous such measures that appeared on state ballots in 2004, as well as the recent enactment of a measure that “was perceived to condone sexual orientation discrimination” by allowing businesses to deny their services based on the owners’ religious objections.

Thus, argued Reeves, if he were free from binding 5th Circuit precedent, he would apply heightened scrutiny to the plaintiffs’ sexual orientation claim, and he suggested that the 5th Circuit should reconsider its precedent.  He would not take the alternative approach of treating this as a sex discrimination case in order to apply heightened scrutiny because, as he pointed out, it was unnecessary to do so.  He was invalidating the ban using strict scrutiny under the Due Process Clause, and he also found that none of the state’s articulated justifications for the ban even met the less demanding rational basis test for an Equal Protection analysis.

Both Reeves and Baker, countering contentions by the state that U.S. v. Windsor was a federalism ruling that support the state’s right to ban same-sex marriages, invoked Justice Scalia’s dissents in Windsor and Lawrence v. Texas, in which one of the most conservative justices on the Supreme Court asserted that the reasoning of the Court in those cases would create an argument in support of a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry.

“Today’s decision may cause uneasiness and concern about the change it will bring,” he concluded.  “But ‘things change, people change, times change, and Mississippi changes, too,” he wrote, quoting the former segregationist governor, Ross R. Barnett, Jr., who he commented “knew firsthand” the truth of these words.  “Mississippi continues to change in ways its people could not anticipate even 10 years ago,” when the marriage amendment was passed.  “Allowing same-sex couples to marry, however, presents no harm to anyone.  At the very least, it has the potential to support families and provide stability for children.  This court joints the vast majority of federal courts to conclude that same-sex couples and the children they raise are equal before the law.  The State of Mississippi cannot deny them the marriage rights and responsibilities it holds out to opposite-sex couples and their children.  Mississippi’s statute and constitutional amendment violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

Lead counsel for plaintiffs in the Mississippi case is Roberta Kaplan of New York’s Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison, who represented Edith Windsor in her successful challenge to Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.  Jack Wagoner, a Little Rock attorney, is lead counsel in the Arkansas case.