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a February 22 letter from the Trump Administration, advising the Court that the Education and Justice Departments had “withdrawn” two federal agency letters issued during the Obama Administration interpreting the statute and regulation to require allowing transgender students to use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.