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Ten Federal Judges Vote “No” on Trump Transgender Military Ban

Posted on: December 23rd, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

President Donald Trump’s July 26 tweet announcing that “the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” as amplified by an August 25 Memorandum, has encountered unanimous resistance from ten federal judges who have had an opportunity to vote on it by Christmas. Nine of the ten were appointed by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.  One, U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis in Baltimore (District of Maryland), was appointed by George H. W. Bush.  As of December 22, the Trump policies had provoked four nationwide preliminary injunctions, and two federal circuit courts of appeals had refuse “emergency” motions by the government to stay the injunctions in connection with a January 1 date for allowing transgender individuals to enlist.

The most recent relevant opinions are Jane Doe 1 v. Trump, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 26477 (D.C. Cir., Dec. 22, 2017); Stockman v. Trump, Case No. EDCV 17-1799 JGB (KKx) (C.D. Cal., Dec. 22, 2017); Stone v. Trump, No. 17-2398 (4th Cir., Dec. 21, 2017); and Karnoski v. Trump, 2017 WL 6311305, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167232 (W.D. Wash., Dec. 11, 2017).  All the major national LGBT groups are involved in at least one of these cases, and several of the nation’s major law firms are participating as cooperating attorneys.

Trump’s August 25 Memorandum set out three policies: a requirement that all transgender personnel be discharged, a ban on allowing transgender individuals to enter the military, and a ban on use of Defense Department or Homeland Security Department funds to pay for sex reassignment procedures for military members. The Memorandum assigned the Defense Department the task of figuring out how to implement these policies, and to report back in writing to the president in February, and meanwhile nobody would be discharged or denied medical treatment.  But the Memorandum specified that the existing ban on enlistments would remain in effect indefinitely, contrary to a Defense Department announcement in June that it would be lifted on January 1, 2018.

The four lawsuits were filed in different federal district courts shortly after the policy was announced, with complaints alleging a violation of Equal Protection and a variety of other claims, but all seeking preliminary injunctions to stop the Trump policies from going into effect while the cases are litigated. They all specifically asked that the Pentagon adhere to the previously announced date of January 1, 2018, to lift the ban on transgender people enlisting.  The Justice Department moved to dismiss all four cases, and vigorously opposed the motions for preliminary injunctions, which if granted would block the policies announced in the President’s August 25 Memorandum from going into effect while the cases are being litigated and would requirement implementation of the January 1 date for allowing transgender people to enlist.

As of December 22, when U.S. District Judge Jesus G. Bernal, sitting in Riverside (Central District of California), issued a nationwide preliminary injunction, all four district judges had issued such injunctions, beginning with D.C. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly on October 30, Judge Garbis in Maryland on November 21, and Judge District Judge Marsha J. Pechman in Seattle (Western District of Washington) on December 11.  The subsequent opinions all cited to and quoted from Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s opinion, none stating any disagreement with her analysis.  On December 21, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to stay Judge Garbis’s injunction, and on December 22, the D.C. Circuit refused to stay Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s injunction.  As of December 22, DOJ had appealed Judge Pechman’s ruling to the 9th Circuit, and a similar appeal was likely to be filed from Judge Bernal’s ruling, but it appeared unlikely that an “emergency” stay of either of these preliminary injunctions would be ordered, or would necessarily have any effect, since the nationwide preliminary injunctions issued by Judges Garbis and Kollar-Kotelly are in effect… unless DOJ can find a U.S. Supreme Court Justice who is willing to issue a stay.

All four district judges rejected the Justice Department’s argument that the cases should be dismissed because no actions had actually yet been taken to implement Trump’s announced policies, which were being “studied” by the Defense Department under an “Interim Guidance” issued by Defense Secretary James Mattis in September. All four judges credited the plaintiffs’ arguments that the announcement of the policies and the instruction to the Defense Department to devise a method of implementation had already thrown into turmoil and uncertainty the lives of presently serving transgender individuals as well as transgender people who were anticipating signing up for military service beginning January 1, including transgender students in the nation’s military academies anticipating joining the active forces upon graduation, and they had also disrupted plans for sex reassignment surgery for several of the plaintiffs.  While Judge Kollar-Kotelly found that none of the plaintiffs in the case before her had individual standing to contest the surgery restriction, so she granted the Justice Department’s motion to dismiss that part of the complaint in the case before her, the three other judges all found that some of the plaintiffs in their cases were directly affected by the surgery ban and denied the Justice Department’s motion to dismiss that part of their cases.  Ultimately, all four cases are proceeding on an Equal Protection theory, with the judges finding that the plaintiffs had standing to bring these constitutional challenges, which were ripe for consideration on the merits.

As to the preliminary injunction motions, all four judges agreed that the high standards for enjoining the implementation of government policies were easily met in these cases. They all agreed that policies treating people adversely because of their gender identity should be reviewed by the same standard as policies that discriminate because of sex, which is called “intermediate scrutiny.”  Under this standard, the government bears the burden of showing that it has a justification for the policy that is “exceedingly persuasive,” “genuine,” “not hypothesized,” and “not invented post hoc in response to litigation,” and “must not rely on overbroad generalizations,” wrote Judge Bernal in his December 22 opinion, picking up quotes from prior cases.

“Defendants’ justifications do not pass muster,” Bernal wrote.  “Their reliance on cost is unavailing, as precedent shows the ease of cost and administration do not survive intermediate scrutiny even if it is significant.  Moreover, all the evidence in the record suggests the ban’s cost savings to the government is miniscule.  Furthermore, Defendants’ unsupported allegation that allowing transgender individuals to be in the military would adversely affect unit cohesion is similarly unsupported by the proffered evidence.  These justifications fall far short of exceedingly persuasive.”  Bernal concluded, as had the other three district judges, that plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their Equal Protection claim, so it was unnecessary to analyze the other constitutional theories they offered.

He also rejected DOJ’s argument that the court should follow the normal practice of according “a highly deferential level of review” to executive branch decisions about military policy. Quoting a Supreme Court ruling from 1981, which such that such deferential review is most appropriate when the “military acts with measure, and not ‘unthinkingly or reflexively,’”  he observed, “Here, the only serious study and evaluation concerning the effect of transgender people in the armed forces led the military leaders to resoundingly conclude there was no justification for the ban.”  He agreed with Judge Kollar-Kotelly that “the reasons offered for categorically excluding transgender individuals were not supported and were in fact contradicted by the only military judgment available at the time.”

Bernal also easily concluded that blocking implementation of the policy and ending the enlistment ban on January 1 were necessary to prevent irreparable harm to the plaintiffs.  This was basically a determination that allowing the Trump policies to go into effect would cause injuries to transgender individuals that could not be completely remedied by monetary damages awarded after the fact.  The Justice Department argued that “separation from the military would not constitute irreparable harm because it is within the Court’s equitable powers to remedy the injury,” but Bernal countered, “These arguments fail to address the negative stigma the ban forces upon Plaintiffs,” including the “damaging public message that transgender people are not fit to serve in the military.  There is nothing any court can do to remedy a government-sent message that some citizens are not worthy of the military uniform simply because of their gender.  A few strokes of the legal quill may easily alter the law, but the stigma of being seen as less-than is not so easily erased.”  Furthermore, federal courts have frequently held that “deprivation of constitutional rights unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.”

As to the “balance of equities” and “public interest” factors that courts are supposed to weigh in deciding whether to enjoin government action, Bernal found that these weighed in favor of granting the injunction. Invoking “national defense” and “unit cohesion” were not persuasive in light of the extended study by the Defense Department that led to its decision in June 2016 to end the ban and to set in motion a change in recruitment polices to take place July 1, 2017 (which was extended by Secretary Mattis to January 1, 2018).

 

Judge Bernal quoted from Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s opinion: “There is absolutely no support for the claim that the ongoing service of transgender people would have any negative effect on the military at all. In fact, there is considerable evidence that it is the discharge and banning of such individuals that would have such effects.”  Judge Bernal saw no reason to depart from the analysis by Judges Garbis and Kollar-Kotelly in their decisions to issue preliminary injunctions.

Judge Bernal issued a two-part order. The first part enjoins the defendants “from categorically excluding individuals … from military service on the basis that they are transgender.” The second part provides that “no current service member … may be separated, denied reenlistment, demoted, denied promotion, denied medically necessary treatment on a timely basis, or otherwise subjected to adverse treatment or differential terms of service on the basis that they are transgender.”

The Justice Department sought to have the preliminary injunctions stayed, but so far the district judges have not been receptive, so DOJ took the next step of filing appeals in the D.C., 4th and 9th Circuits, and, claiming an “emergency” as January 1 drew near, sought particularly to stay the part of the injunctions that would require lifting the enlistment ban as of that date.

On December 21, a 4th Circuit three-judge panel rejected the motion for stay without comment. The next day, however, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit issued an opinion explaining its refusal to grant the requested stay.  Wrote the D.C. panel, “Appellants have not shown a strong likelihood that they will succeed on the merits of their challenge to the district court’s order.  As the district court explained, ‘the sheer breadth of the exclusion ordered by the [Memorandum], the unusual’ and abrupt ‘circumstances surround the President’s announcement of [the exclusion], the fact that the reasons given for [it] do not appear to be supported by any facts, and the recent rejection of those reasons by the military itself,’ taken together, ‘strongly suggest that Plaintiffs’ Fifth Amendment claim is meritorious.’”

The court noted in particular the adverse effect that staying the injunction would have on transgender individuals who have been attending the service academies and anticipating graduating and being accepted into the active service as officers. Indeed, the court suggested, federal law actually treats students in the service academies as members of the military, so letting the discharge policy go into effect posed an immediate threat to them.

In seeking “emergency” relief, DOJ contended that the Defense Department was not ready to being enlisting transgender people. In an order that Judge Kollar-Kotelly had issued on December 11, denying an emergency stay motion, she pointed out that DOJ was relying on “sweeping and conclusory statements” without “explaining what precisely needs to be completed by January 1, 2018, in order for Appellants to be prepared to begin transgender accessions.”

Totally undermining this emergency motion was the Defense Department’s own action. “With respect to implementation of transgender accession into the military,” wrote the D.C. panel, “Appellants did not even inform this court of a Defense Department memorandum issued December 8, 2017, that provides detailed directions and guidance governing ‘processing transgender applicants for military service,’ directions that the Secretary of Defense’s Department commanded ‘shall remain in effect until expressly revoked.’  That open-ended directive documenting concrete plans already in place to govern accession was issued before the district court ruled on the motion for a stay pending appeal.”  Thus, the government is tripping over itself in the urgency of DOJ to satisfy the President’s demand that his whims be obeyed.  And the court was totally unconvinced by DOJ’s argument that, in the absence of the preliminary injunction, Mattis had any discretion to alter the terms set out in Trump’s Memorandum.

The court noted that “the enjoined accession ban would directly impair and injure the ongoing educational and professional plans of transgender individuals and would deprive the military of skilled and talented troops,” so “allowing it to take effect would be counter to the public interest.”

“Finally,” wrote the court, “in the balancing of equities, it must be remembered that all Plaintiffs seek during this litigation is to serve their Nation with honor and dignity, volunteering to face extreme hardships, to endure lengthy deployments and separation from family and friends, and to willingly make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives if necessary to protect the Nation, the people of the United States, and the Constitution against all who would attack them.”

In addition to denying the stay, the D.C. panel set out an expedited calendar for addressing DOJ’s appeal of the District Court’s decision to issue the injunction, directing that oral argument be scheduled for January 27, 2018. Furthermore, apparently reacting to the maze of unfamiliar acronyms strewn through the papers filed with the court, making them difficult for the judges to process efficiently, “the parties are urged to limit the use of abbreviations, including acronyms.  While acronyms may be used for entities and statues with widely recognized initials, briefs should not contain acronyms that are not widely known.

Perhaps federal judges are too polite to say so, but the clear import of their opinions in this litigation is that President Trump lied in his original tweet when he said that his decision was made “after consultation with my Generals and military experts.” To date, neither the president nor anybody speaking for him has actually identified any “military experts” or “Generals” who were consulted before the president decided to take this action.  The Defense Department, confronted with the allegations in the complaints about the extended studies that preceded the June 2016 policy announcement by Secretary Carter, has not cited any studies to counter them.  Secretary Mattis, who was on vacation when the president issued his tweet, was informed that it was happening the night before, according to press reports, but is not said to have been consulted about whether this policy change should be made.  Thus, the reference in the court opinions to the lack of “facts” backing up this policy, and the unanimous agreement that the usual judicial deference to military expertise is inappropriate in these cases.

Trump Changes Policy on Military Service by Transgender Individuals

Posted on: August 27th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

On July 26, to the surprise of Defense Department officials and members of the White House staff, Donald Trump transmitted a series of three tweets beginning at 8:55 a.m. announcing a new policy concerning military service by transgender individuals. “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow……  ….Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.  Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming….. ….victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.”  This appeared to be a complete reversal of a policy decision made a year earlier by the Defense Department, which after a period of prolonged study that included a report commissioned from the RAND Corporation (a “think-tank” that specializes in producing studies on defense-related issues by contract with the DoD) and widespread consultations within the military and with military allies that allow transgender individuals to serve had concluded to rescind an existing regulation that established a ban on service by transgendered individuals on purported medical grounds.  As a result of the policy newly announced during June 2016, hundreds of transgender service members “came out” to their superior officers, and some service members who had been concealing their gender identity for years began the process of transition with the assurance that the costs would be covered under military health policies.  Estimates of the number of transgender service members ranged from a few thousand as high as 15,000, most of whom have not yet made their presence known to their commanding officers.  This unknown group likely includes many officers as well as enlisted personnel.

Attempts to discern details of the new policy were at first unsuccessful because neither the usual sources in the White House nor the Pentagon had received any advance notice or details. Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, Commandant of the Coast Guard, immediately announced that the Coast Guard would not “abandon” its several openly-transgender members, and that he and his staff had reached out to reassure them.  The other military service heads and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff quickly announced that there would be no change of policy until some formal directive came from the Office of the President.  A spontaneous presidential tweet was not deemed by the Pentagon to be an order to abandon an existing published policy.  The White House finally issued a document titled “Presidential Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Homeland Security” on August 25, signed by President Trump, directing a series of steps that appeared to fall far short of the draconian July 26 tweets.

After a paragraph summarizing what had been done the previous summer and noting that the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security had extended a July 1, 2017, date for allowing transgender people to join the military to January 1, 2018, the President stated his reasoning: “In my judgment, the previous Administration failed to identify a sufficient basis to conclude that terminating the Departments’ longstanding policy and practice would not hinder military effectiveness and lethality, disrupting unit cohesion, or tax military resources, and there remain meaningful concerns that further study is needed to ensure that continued implementation of last year’s policy change would not have those negative effects.”  This was stated in blithe disregard of the fact that over the past year transgender military service members, in reliance on the announced policy change, had come out to their commanders by the hundreds and that there was no evidence during that time of any adverse effect on military operations or unit cohesion, or of significant strain on the military’s budget attributable to this policy change.  There has been no reporting that military commanders had asked to abandon the policy allowing transgender individuals to serve, and there has been no reporting that either Trump or members of his staff have actually reviewed the voluminous materials generated by the review process undertaken by the DoD prior to announcing its change of policy in June 2016, or were reacting to actual data indicating problems over the past year (since there have not been reports of any such problems).

After invoking the president’s powers as Commander in Chief, the Memorandum continues, “I am directing the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of Homeland Security with respect to the U.S. Coast Guard, to return to the longstanding policy and practice on military service by transgender individuals that was in place prior to June 2016 until such time as a sufficient basis exists upon which to conclude that terminating that policy and practice would not have the negative effects discussed above. The Secretary of Defense, after consulting with the Secretary of Homeland Security, may advise me at any time, in writing, that a change to this policy is warranted.”

The Memorandum then sets out specific “directives,” apparently intended to be the operative provisions of the Memorandum. First is to “maintain the currently effective policy regarding accession of transgender individuals into military service beyond January 1, 2018, until such time as the Secretary of Defense, after consulting with the Secretary of Homeland Security, provides a recommendation to the contrary that I find convincing.”  In other words, the existing ban on enlisting transgender individuals will continue indefinitely, but can be ended when the Secretary of Defense convinces the president to end it.  Second is to “halt all use of DoD or DHS resources to fund sex reassignment surgical procedures for military personnel, except to the extent necessary to protect the health of an individual who has already begun a course of treatment to reassign his or her sex.” Interestingly, this directive mentions only “sex reassignment surgical procedures” but not any of the other costs associated with gender transition, including hormone treatment, which may reflect either ignorance by the White House staffers who drafted the Memorandum or a deliberate intention to make the exclusion as narrow as possible, focusing only on the political “flashpoint” of surgery. The Memorandum states that this second directive about surgical expenses will take effect on March 23, 2018.  In other words, transgender individuals currently serving will continue to be covered for sex reassignment surgical procedures at least until March 23, 2018, and continuing beyond then if cutting off coverage on that date interferes with completing surgical procedures already under way.  Or at least, that’s what it appears to say.

Third, in the section titled “effective dates and implementation,” the Memorandum gives the Secretary of Defense until February 21, 2018, to submit to the president a “plan for implementing both the general policy set forth in section 1(b) of this memorandum and the specific directives set forth in section 2 of this memorandum. The implementation plan shall adhere to the determinations of the Secretary of Defense, made in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, as to what steps are appropriate and consistent with military effectiveness and lethality, budgetary constraints, and applicable law.  As part of the implementation plan, the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, shall determine how to address transgender individuals currently serving in the United States military.  Until the Secretary has made that determination, no action may be taken against such individuals under the policy set forth in section 1(b) of this memorandum.”  The Memorandum also has a severability provision, the usual disclaimers accompanying presidential directives about not creating new rights or changing the authority of any government departments or agencies, and permission to the Secretary to publish the Memorandum in the Federal Register.  (It was made immediately available on the White House website.)

On a plain reading, the “effective dates and implementation” section appears to mark a substantial retreat from the absolutist tone of the July 26 tweets. In trying to construe the tweets, there had been speculation that transgender service members would be immediately discharged or pressured to resign in order to avoid discharge.  Leaks from the White House while staff members were working on a written guidance for the president to sign led to reports that transgender enlisted personnel would be allowed to serve out their enlistments but then be denied reenlistment while being encouraged to resign earlier, and that transgender officers could continue to serve their commissions but would be required to resign if being considered for promotions.

Based on the leaks, GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), the Boston-based New England public interest law firm, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), based in San Francisco, with cooperating attorneys from Foley Hoag LLP and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP, filed a lawsuit on August 9 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, representing five “Jane Doe” plaintiffs, all presently serving transgender individuals, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. Doe v. Trump, Case 1:17-cv-01597.  The plaintiffs, with varying lengths of service, present compelling stories about the harms the proposed policy would have on them, based, of course, on what was known when the complaint was filed.  Among them, of course, were interference with ongoing transitions, interference with attaining military pensions (which some were close to vesting), and loss of career and benefits, affecting not only the plaintiffs but their family members as well.  There was also the emotional stress generated by uncertainty about their future employment and welfare.

The three-count complaint asserts violations of equal protection and due process (Fifth Amendment) and invokes the doctrine of estoppel to prevent adverse moves against the plaintiffs and those similarly situated as presently serving transgender members of the military who had been encouraged to “come out” as transgender under the earlier policy. The named defendants, in addition to the president, are Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., the Departments of the Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard, Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy, Air Force Secretary Heather A. Wilson, Homeland Security Secretary Elaine C. Duke, and, for good measure, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.  There was some speculation and criticism that filing the lawsuit before a formal policy was announced or implemented was premature and might result in a dismissal on grounds of standing or ripeness, but the release of the formal guidance just a few weeks after the suit was filed will undoubtedly lead to the filing of an amended complaint focusing more specifically at the changes announced in the Memorandum.  The lengthy delay specified by the Memorandum for implementing changes may be invoked by the Justice Department in seeking to get this case dismissed.  Perhaps the Memorandum was drafted with this strategic use in mind.

Press coverage of the July 26 tweets showed overwhelming opposition and criticism from media, many government officials, and members of both parties in Congress. Those who voiced support of the president’s announcement came from the House Republicans who had waged a losing battle to amend a pending Defense budget measure to ban use of any appropriations to pay for sex reassignment surgery for military members, and there were soon press reports that supporters of that amendment had specifically asked the president to take steps to prevent spending federal funds for this purpose.  Furthermore, it was reported that threats had been made to block passage of the Defense measure – which was intended to provide some funding for the president’s project to “build the wall” along the U.S. border with Mexico (reflecting his ignorance of world history, and most specifically of the spectacular failure of the vaunted “Maginot Line” constructed after World War I to protect France from any future invasion by German military forces) – unless the president prevented military expenditures on sex reassignment procedures.  To the simple-minded president, the solution was obvious.  Reviving a ban on all military service by transgender individuals meant that there would be no openly transgender individuals in the military seeking to have such procedures performed and, since reversing Obama Administration policies regardless of their merits seems to be the main goal of many of Trump’s actions, simply overturning the Obama Administration policy became his simplistic solution to his political problem.  There was no indication that Trump made this decision after consulting “my Generals” or military experts – at least, the White House never revealed the names of any such individuals who were consulted, and it appeared that Secretary Mattis had merely been informed of the president’s intentions the night before the tweets.  One suspects that Trump’s “expert” was likely Steve Bannon, a former Marine.

The August 25 Memorandum did not require the immediate, or even eventual, discharge of anybody, and appeared to give Secretary Mattis wide discretion to come up with an implementing plan and at least six months to do it, while barring any action against transgender service members during the intervening time. Furthermore, in typical “kick the can down the road” Trump style (which is, admittedly, a typical style of U.S. politicians generally, only more pronounced in this president), it leaves open the possibility that the Obama Administration policies will be left in place, provided Mattis asks for this in writing summoning persuasive evidence that nothing is gained and much is lost by preventing transgender individuals from enlisting or being commissioned out of the service academies or by blocking transgender service members (including commissioned officers) from continuing their service.  Press accounts noted that the anticipated expense of covering sex reassignment surgery was dwarfed by the annual military expenditure on Viagra and similar drugs  (Who knew, as Trump might ask, that the Defense Department, the government’s most “macho” agency, was spending so much money to stiffen the limp genitals of male members?), and that the replacement costs for several thousand fully-trained and productive military members would far outweigh the costs of down-time for the relatively small number of individuals at any given time who might be unavailable for assignment while recovering from sex reassignment surgery.  (There is no indication that the other steps in gender transition, including hormone therapy, are disabling in a way that would interfere with military service.)

As worded, the Memorandum leant itself to the interpretation that with the passage of time, as the immediate political problem that “inspired” Trump to emit his tweets had been surmounted, sober heads could prevail, Mattis could reassure the transgender troops that nothing was happening right away, and eventually the president would accept Mattis’s written recommendation to allow transgender individuals to serve after all. (This interpretation depends on Mattis having the fortitude and political courage to tell the president, as he had done during the transition after the election on the subject of torture as an interrogation device, that Trump’s announced position did not make sense as a matter of military policy.)  Of course, the Memorandum directive means continuing discrimination against transgender individuals who seek to enlist, raising serious constitutional issues in light of the increasing recognition by federal courts that gender identity discrimination is a form of sex discrimination in equal protection doctrine, but the Memorandum, as it plays out, could avoid the loss of employment for transgender individuals now serving, although it would pose continuing emotional stress stemming from the uncertainty of future developments until Mattis convinces the president to countermand his new “policy.”

When the GLAD/NCLR suit was filed, other organizations, including Lambda Legal and ACLU, announced that they would be preparing lawsuits as well, and the release of the Memorandum on August 25 led to immediate announcements that more lawsuits will be filed. “See you in court,” wrote ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero to the organization’s supporters.  As with other “bold” executive actions by Trump, this anti-transgender initiative may be stopped in its tracks by preliminary injunctions, although the Memorandum was evidently drafted to try to minimize that likelihood by suggesting that nothing much is going to happen right away other than the continuing ban on enlistment.  As to the enlistment ban, it is questionable that the original GLAD/NCLR plaintiffs, all currently serving members, have standing to challenge it, but one expects that an amended complaint would add as plaintiffs some transgender individuals who hope to enlist.

Houston Benefits Dispute May Bring Marriage Equality Issue Back to the Supreme Court

Posted on: January 25th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

Conservatives eager to bring the marriage equality issue back to the U.S. Supreme Court after President Donald J. Trump has had an opportunity to appoint some conservative justices may have found a vehicle to get the issue there in an employee benefits dispute from Houston. On January 20, the Texas Supreme Court announced that it had “withdrawn” its September 2, 2016, order rejecting a petition to review a ruling by the state’s intermediate court of appeals that had implied that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, might require Houston to provide the same spousal health benefits to same-sex as different-sex spouses of City workers.  Instead, announced the Court, it had reinstated the petition for review and scheduled oral argument for March 1, 2017.  Parker v. Pidgeon, 477 S.W.3d 353 (Tex. 14th Dist. Ct. App., 2015), review denied, sub nom. Pidgeon v. Turner, 2016 WL 4938006 (Texas Supreme Ct., September 2, 2016), No. 16-0688, Order withdrawn, motion for rehearing granted, petition reinstated (Jan. 20, 2017).

The plaintiffs in the Houston benefits case, Houston taxpayers Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, had filed a motion for rehearing with active support from Governor Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, both ardent marriage equality opponents eager to chip away at the marriage equality ruling or even to get it reversed. The Texas Supreme Court’s order denying review had been issued over a fervent dissenting opinion by Justice John Devine, who argued for a limited reading of Obergefell, and the Republican leaders’ amicus brief in support of review channeled Devine’s arguments.

Trump’s nomination of a conservative to fill the seat left vacant when Justice Antonin Scalia died last February would not change the Supreme Court line-up on marriage equality. Obergefell was decided by a 5-4 vote, with Scalia dissenting.  However, it is possible – even likely, if rumors of a possible retirement by Justice Anthony Kennedy at the end of the Court’s 2017-18 Term are accurate – that Trump will get an opportunity to replace the author of the Obergefell decision with a more conservative justice in time for the Court’s 2018-19 Term.  Regardless how the Texas Supreme Court rules on this appeal, its interpretation of the scope of Obergefell could set up a question of federal constitutional law that could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and once the issue gets to the Court, it is possible that the Obergefell dissenters, strengthened in number by new conservative appointees, could take the opportunity to narrow or even overrule the marriage equality decision.

The Houston dispute dates back to 2001, when Houston voters reacted to a City Council move to adopt same-sex partner benefits by approving a City Charter amendment that rejected city employee health benefits for “persons other than employees, their legal spouses and dependent children.” In 2001 same-sex couples could not legally marry anywhere in the world, so this effectively denied benefits to any and all same-sex partners of City employees.  Texas was also one of many states that put firm bans on same-sex marriage into its constitution and family law statute.

After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013, Houston Mayor Annise Parker, an openly-lesbian longtime LGBT rights advocate, announced the extension of health benefits to same-sex spouses of City employees. Although same-sex couples could not then marry in Texas, they could go to any of a number of other states to get married, including California and New York and, most conveniently as a matter of geography, Iowa.  Parker and her City Attorney concluded that under the Supreme Court’s reasoning in the DOMA case, United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675, Houston’s city government was obligated to recognize lawfully contracted same-sex marriages of city employees and provide them the same benefits that were accorded to other city employees.  Federal constitutional requirements would override the City Charter ban as well as state law.

Taxpayers Pidgeon and Hicks filed suit in state court, contending that Parker’s action violated the Texas Constitution and statutes, as well as the city charter amendment. They persuaded the trial judge to issue a temporary injunction against the benefits extension while the case was pending.  The City appealed that ruling to the 14th District Court of Appeals, which sat on the appeal as new marriage equality litigation, sparked by the Windsor ruling, went forward in dozens of states including Texas.  A Texas federal district judge ruled in 2014 in the De Leon case that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.  The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard the state’s appeal of that ruling in January 2015.  After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality in June 2015, the 5th Circuit issued its decision upholding the Texas district court, 791 F.3d 619, which in turn ordered Texas to allow and recognize same-sex marriages.  This prompted the 14th District Court of Appeals to issue its decision on July 28, 2015.

The Court of Appeals ruling in Parker v. Pidgeon, 477 S.W.3d 353, said, “Because of the substantial change in the law regarding same-sex marriage since the temporary injunction was signed, we reverse the trial court’s temporary injunction and remand for proceedings consistent with Obergefell and De Leon.”  The court did not rule on the merits, merely sending the case back to the trial court to issue a decision “consistent with” the federal marriage equality rulings.  What those rulings may require in terms of city employee benefits is a matter of some dispute.

Pidgeon and Hicks petitioned the Texas Supreme Court to review this court of appeals decision, but the court denied that petition on September 2, 2016, with Justice Devine dissenting. Devine argued that the court should have taken up the case because, in his view, the majority of the court “assumed that because the United States Supreme Court declared couples of the same sex have a fundamental right to marry, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires cities to offer the same benefits to same-sex spouses of employees as to opposite-sex spouses.  I disagree.” He continued: “Marriage is a fundamental right.  Spousal benefits are not.  Thus, the two issues are distinct, with sharply contrasting standards for review.  Because the court of appeals’ decision blurs these distinctions and threatens constitutional standards long etched in our nation’s jurisprudence, I would grant review.”

Justice Devine was mistaken as to the court of appeals decision. That court did not hold in its July 28 ruling that same-sex spouses of Houston employees are entitled to health benefits from the city.  Rather, it ruled that because of “substantial change in the law” since the temporary injunction was issued, the injunction should be reversed and the case sent back to the trial court for “proceedings consistent with Obergefell and De Leon.”  If the trial court, on reconsideration, concluded that Obergefell and De Leon did not require the City to extend benefits to same-sex spouses of its employees, as Justice Devine argued in his dissent, the trial court could still rule in favor of Pidgeon and Hicks.  All the court of appeals directed the trial judge to do was to rethink the case in light of the new federal rulings.

Devine’s argument rests on a very narrow reading of Obergefell.  He interprets the Supreme Court’s decision to be sharply focused on the right of same-sex couples to marry, resting on the Court’s conclusion that the right to marry is a “fundamental right.”  Thus, a state would have to have a “compelling interest” to deny the right, a test that the Supreme Court found was not met.  However, pointed out Devine, the Supreme Court never explicitly said that the federal constitution requires state and local governments to treat all marriages the same, regardless whether they are same-sex or different-sex marriages.  And, he argued, public employees do not have a fundamental constitutional right to receive health insurance benefits from their employer.  Thus, he contended, the state could decide who gets benefits based on its own policy considerations, which the courts should uphold if they satisfy the relatively undemanding “rationality” test that is used when a fundamental right is not at stake.  As to that, he argued that the state’s interest in procreation by married different-sex couples could justify extending benefits to them but not to same-sex couples.

A contrary argument would note that Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell specifically listed health insurance as one of the many benefits associated with marriage that contributed towards the conclusion that the right to marry was a fundamental right because of its importance to the welfare of a couple and their children.  Similarly, Justice Kennedy did not consider the “procreation” argument persuasive to justify denying the right to marry to same-sex couples.  On the other hand, the Supreme Court did not say anywhere in its opinion that states are constitutionally required to treat same-sex and different-sex couples exactly the same in every respect, ignoring any factual distinctions between them.  Justice Devine’s argument seems strained, but not totally implausible, especially in the hands of a conservatively-inclined court.

Timing is everything in terms of getting an issue before the Supreme Court, especially if the aim of Texas conservatives and their anti-LGBT allies around the country is to get the issue there after Trump has had two appointments.  Once the Texas Supreme Court hears oral argument on March 1, it could take as long as it likes to issue a ruling on the appeal, and it could be strategic about holding up a ruling until it looks likely that any Supreme Court appeal would be considered after the 2017-18 Term of the Court has concluded in June 2018.  After the Texas Supreme Court rules, the losing party could take up to 90 days to file a petition in the Supreme Court.  If the petition arrives at the Supreme Court after the end of its term, that Court won’t decide whether to grant review until the beginning of its new term in the fall of 2018, and if the petition is granted, argument would not take place for several months, giving the parties time to brief the merits of the case.  If the Texas Supreme Court decides to affirm the court of appeals, it is highly likely that Pidgeon and Hicks, abetted by Abbott and Paxton, will seek Supreme Court review.  If the Texas Supreme Court reverses, the City of Houston will have to decide whether to seek Supreme Court review, or whether to adopt a wait-and-see attitude while the trial court proceeds to a final ruling on the merits of the case.  And the trial court could well decide, upon sober reflection, that Obergefell compels a ruling against Pidgeon and Hicks, which would put them back in the driver’s seat as to the decision to appeal to the Supreme Court.

If a second Trump appointee was confirmed while all of this was playing out, the case would be heard by a bench with a majority of conservative justices appointed by Republican presidents, one by George H.W. Bush (Clarence Thomas), two by George W. Bush (Chief Justice John Roberts and Samuel Alito), and two by Donald Trump. Trump’s appointees would be joining three Republican colleagues who filed or signed dissents in the Windsor and Obergefell cases.  Regardless of how the Petitioner frames the questions posed to the Court, the justices are free to rewrite the question or questions on which they grant review.  If a majority of the newly-constituted Court is eager to revisit Obergefell, they could grant review on the question whether Obergefell was correctly decided.  Based on past history, they could reach that issue if a majority wants to do so without signaling its salience in the Order granting review.

Much of this is conjecture, of course. Justice Devine was a lone voice dissenting from the September 2 order to deny review in this case.  But that order was issued at a time when national pollsters were near unanimous in predicting that Hillary Clinton would be elected and, consequently, would be filling the Scalia vacancy and any others that occurred over the next four years. The political calculus changed dramatically on November 8 when Trump was elected. Even though he has stated that he accepts marriage equality as a “settled issue,” his announced intention to appoint Justices in the image of Scalia and to seek reversal of Roe v. Wade, the Court’s seminal abortion decision from 1973, suggests that he will appoint justices who have a propensity to agree with the Obergefell dissenters that the marriage equality ruling was illegitimate.  (Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his dissent that it had “nothing to do with the Constitution.”)  Although the Court has frequently resisted efforts to get it to reverse highly consequential constitutional decisions, it has occasionally done so, most notably in the LGBT context in its 2003 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, striking down a state sodomy law and overruling its 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick.

After the election, many LGBT rights organizations issued statements to reassure people that marriage equality would not immediately disappear after Trump took office. That remains true.  A constitutional ruling by the Supreme Court can only be changed by the adoption of a constitutional amendment, which Democrats can easily block in Congress, or overruling by the Supreme Court, which requires that a new case come up to the Court at a time when a majority of the Court is receptive to the overruling argument, which seems to be at least two years off from now.  But these statements, including those by this writer, conceded that in the long run it was possible that Trump’s Supreme Court appointments and new appeals headed to the Supreme Court might come together to endanger marriage equality.  This new development in the Houston benefits case shows one way that could happen.

No, Donald Trump Can’t Repeal Marriage Equality

Posted on: November 11th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

Some panicky LGBT people have been calling the LGBT legal and political organizations to ask whether they should accelerate their wedding plans to marry before Donald Trump takes office, and many are expressing concern that the marriage equality victory, won in the Supreme Court on June 26, 2015, after so much hard work and heartache, is now in danger of being reversed, and that their own same-sex marriages might become invalid.

 

Although nobody can predict the future with absolute certainty, it is highly unlikely that the marriage equality decision will be reversed, and it is an absolute certainty that Trump as president will not have the authority to reverse it on his own or even with the connivance of Congress.  Furthermore, there is good legal authority to conclude that a valid marriage, once contracted, can only be ended by a divorce or by the death of one of the spouses, not by executive fiat or legislative action.

 

The Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges, voting 5-4, that same-sex couples have a right to marry as part of the liberty guaranteed under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, bolstered by the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws.  A ruling on a constitutional right by the U.S. Supreme Court can only be changed in one of two ways: a constitutional amendment, or an overruling by the Supreme Court in a later case.  Once a case is decided and the Court sends its mandate out to the lower court from which the case was appealed, the losing party can file a petition seeking a rehearing, but such a petition has to be filed quickly and the Court almost always denies them.  We are now 18 months out from the Obergefell ruling.  It is final, done, no longer open to reconsideration by the Court.  And the President has no power to “repeal” or “overrule” it by himself.  Neither does Congress.

 

During the campaign, Donald Trump did not threaten to try to repeal or reverse the ruling on his own. He said he thought the question of marriage should have been left to the states, so he disagreed with the Court’s decision, and he said he would consider appointing new justices to the Supreme Court who would vote to overrule it.

 

Trump can’t appoint a new justice to the Court until there is a vacancy.  There is one now, due to the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last winter and the refusal by the Senate to consider President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to replace him.  But Justice Scalia dissented in the Obergefell case, so replacing him with a conservative judge would not change the outcome.  The five-member majority in Obergefell – Justices Anthony Kennedy (who wrote the Court’s opinion), Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan – are all still there.  And there is no case now pending before the Court that would provide a vehicle for overruling Obergefell v. Hodges.  And any marriage equality opponent thinking strategically would be waiting until one of those majority justices leaves before attempting to launch a legal challenge.

 

What about the constitutional amendment route?  That is not going to happen.  Trump’s election doesn’t affect that at all, since the President plays no role in amending the Constitution.  Article V makes it so difficult to pass an amendment that our 240-year-old Constitution has picked up only 27 amendments, ten of them being the Bill of Rights adopted in 1791, and the most recent one, adopted in 1992, a quarter century ago, requiring that any pay raise that Congress votes for itself cannot go into effect until after the next House of Representatives election.  In order to propose a new amendment, at least 2/3 of each house of Congress has to approve it, and then it has to be ratified by at least ¾ of the states.  Alternatively, 2/3 of the states can apply to Congress to call a Constitutional Convention for the purpose of proposing amendments, but any amendments proposed would still require ratification by ¾ of the states.

 

By the time the Supreme Court decided Obergefell in 2015, popular opinion polls showed that a clear majority of the public supported marriage equality, and that margin of support only increases over time, as polling in the early marriage equality states such as Massachusetts has shown.  Amendments to the Constitution can only pass with overwhelming public support.  There is no overwhelming public support to abolish same-sex marriage.  That effort is now the province mainly of far-right-wing cranks and religious fanatics.  And as long as the Democrats hold more than 1/3 of the seats in the Senate, it is highly unlikely that a Marriage Amendment would get the necessary 2/3 vote in that chamber.  Indeed, the Democrats hold enough seats in that House, in combination with some more moderate Republicans, to block it in that chamber as well.  So, marriage equality opponents, forget about passing a Marriage Amendment.

 

The alternative, of course, is for opponents to set up a lawsuit raising the question and to get it to the Supreme Court after Trump (or a successor) has had an opportunity to appoint somebody to replace a member of the Obergefell majority.   That majority includes the three oldest members of the Court, Ginsburg, Kennedy and Breyer, so it is possible Trump will have that opportunity before the end of a four-year term.   Even then, however, an overruling is highly unlikely.

 

First, a case presenting the question has to come to the Court, and the issue of marriage equality has to be central to that case.  The Court may be presented over the next few years with cases that involving marriage equality in some way.  They already have a petition to review the Colorado marriage cake case, presenting the claim that a baker’s 1st Amendment rights are violated by fining him under a state anti-discrimination law for refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, but I’m not sure such a case, even if the Supreme Court decided to hear it, would provide a vehicle for overruling Obergefell.  More likely, a challenge would come from some state deciding to provoke a lawsuit by denying equal treatment for some benefit to a married same-sex couples. But it’s not enough just to petition the Court, because the Court has complete discretion about whether to accept a case for review, and it takes four Justices to grant such a petition.  By the time they get such a petition AFTER a change of membership has reduced the Obergefell majority, perhaps several years from now, same-sex marriage will be such a settled issue, with so many tens of thousands of same-sex couples married throughout the country, that it seems highly unlikely that even four members of the Court would be motivated to reopen the issue.

 

Furthermore, the Court normally embraces a concept called “stare decisis,” a Latin term meaning standing by what has been decided.  They are very reluctant to overrule themselves, especially when a decision has been embraced by society and incorporated into the everyday lives of many people.  When they do overrule a prior decision, it is usually in the direction of realizing that the old decision wrongly denied a constitutional claim or adopted an incorrect and harmful interpretation of a statute.   The Court resists attempts to get it to cut back rights that it previously recognized.

 

In the course of litigating about LGBT rights, the Court has twice overruled past decisions.  In 2003, the Court overruled Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) when it decided that the constitution protected people engaged in consensual gay sex from criminal prosecution, in Lawrence v. Texas (2003).  Indeed, the Court said that Bowers was wrong when it was decided.  The second time, it overruled Baker v. Nelson (1972) when it held that same-sex couples have a right to marry.  Baker, however, was a one-sentence decision stating that the issue of same-sex marriage did not present a “substantial federal question.”  In both cases, overruling involved a determination that the prior case had wrongly failed to recognize a constitutional right, so the new decision marked an expansion of liberty and equality. The Court is unlikely to overrule a case in order to contract liberty or deny equality.

 

As to the validity of existing same-sex marriages, when Californians passed Proposition 8 in 2008 after several thousand same-sex couples had married in that state, the California Supreme Court ruled that although Prop 8 was validly enacted, it could not retroactively “un-marry” all those couples.  Their marriages would continue to be valid and recognized by the state.  It is unlikely that the U.S. Supreme Court would take a different position regarding existing same-sex marriages if it were to overrule Obergefell.  That would raise daunting due process and equal protection questions.

 

Trump’s taking office does not present a direct and present threat to marriage equality.  It does present many other threats, including the loss of pro-LGBT executive orders and the likely abandonment by federal agencies of the position that sex discrimination laws protect LGBT people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  But those are other issues….