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Supreme Court May Consider Whether Federal Law Already Outlaws Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Posted on: July 12th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

Lambda Legal has announced that it will petition the Supreme Court to decide whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans employment discrimination because of sex, also bans discrimination because of sexual orientation. Lambda made the announcement on July 6, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, announced that the full circuit court would not reconsider a decision by a three-judge panel that had ruled on March 10 against such a claim in a lawsuit by Jameka K. Evans, a lesbian security guard who was suing Georgia Regional Hospital for sexual orientation discrimination.

The question whether Title VII can be interpreted to cover sexual orientation claims got a big boost several months ago when the full Chicago-based 7th Circuit ruled that a lesbian academic, Kimberly Hively, could sue an Indiana community college for sexual orientation discrimination under the federal sex discrimination law, overruling prior panel decisions from that circuit.  The 7th Circuit was the first federal appeals court to rule in favor of such coverage.  Lambda Legal represented Hively in her appeal to the 7th Circuit.

Title VII, adopted in 1964 as part of the federal Civil Rights Act, did not even include sex as a prohibited ground of discrimination in the bill that came to the floor of the House of Representatives for debate. The primary focus of the debate was race discrimination. But a Virginia representative, Howard Smith, an opponent of the bill, introduced a floor amendment to add sex.  The amendment was approved by an odd coalition of liberals and conservatives, the former out of a desire to advance employment rights for women, many of the later hoping that adding sex to the bill would make it too controversial to pass. However, the amended bill was passed by the House and sent to the Senate, where a lengthy filibuster delayed a floor vote for months before it passed without much discussion about the meaning of the inclusion of sex as a prohibited ground for employment discrimination.  (The sex amendment did not apply to other parts of the bill, and the employment discrimination title is the only part of the 1964 Act that outlaws sex discrimination.)

Within a few years both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and federal courts had issued decisions rejecting discrimination claims from LGBT plaintiffs, holding that Congress did not intend to address homosexuality or transsexualism (as it was then called) in this law. The judicial consensus against coverage did not start to break down until after the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision on Ann Hopkin’s sex discrimination lawsuit against Price Waterhouse.  The accounting firm had denied her partnership application.  The Court accepted her argument that sex stereotyping had infected the process, based on sexist comments by partners of the firm concerning her failure to conform to their image of a proper “lady partner.”

Within a few years, litigators began to persuade federal judges that discrimination claims by transgender plaintiffs also involved sex stereotyping. By definition a transgender person does not conform to stereotypes about their sex as identified at birth, and by now a near consensus has emerged among the federal courts of appeals that discrimination because of gender identity or expression is a form of sex discrimination under the stereotype theory.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission changed its position as well, following the lead of some of the court decisions, in 2012.

Advocates for gay plaintiffs also raised the stereotype theory, but with mixed success. Most federal circuit courts were unwilling to accept it unless the plaintiff could show that he or she was gender-nonconforming in some obvious way, such as effeminacy in men or masculinity (akin to the drill sergeant demeanor of Ann Hopkins) in women.  The courts generally rejected the argument that to have a homosexual or bisexual orientation was itself a violation of employer’s stereotypes about how men and women were supposed to act, and some circuit courts, including the New York-based 2nd Circuit, had ruled that if sexual orientation was the “real reason” for discrimination, a Title VII claim must fail, even if the plaintiff was gender nonconforming.  Within the past few years, however, several district court and the EEOC have accepted the stereotype argument and other arguments insisting that discrimination because of sexual orientation is always, as a practical matter, about the sex of the plaintiff.  This year, for the first time, a federal appeals court, the Chicago-based 7th Circuit, did so in the Hively case.  A split among the circuits about the interpretation of a federal statute is listed by the Supreme Court in its practice rules as the kind of case it is likely to accept for review.

The Supreme Court has been asked in the past to consider whether Title VII could be interpreted to cover sexual orientation and gender identity claims, but it has always rejected the invitation, leaving in place the lower court rulings.

However, last year the Court signaled its interest in the question whether sex discrimination, as such, includes gender identity discrimination, when it agreed to review a ruling by the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the district court should not have dismissed a sex-discrimination claim by Gavin Grimm, a transgender high school student, under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bans sex discrimination by schools that get federal money.  The 4th Circuit held in Grimm’s case that the district court should have deferred to an interpretation of the Title IX regulations by the Obama Administration’s Department of Education, which had decided to follow the lead of the EEOC and federal courts in Title VII cases and accept the sex stereotyping theory for gender identity discrimination claims. Shortly before the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments in this case, however, the Trump Administration “withdrew” the Obama Administration interpretation, pulling the rug out from under the 4th Circuit’s decision.  The Supreme Court then canceled the argument and sent the case back to the 4th Circuit, where an argument has been scheduled for this fall on the question whether Title IX applies in the absence of such an executive branch interpretation.

Meanwhile, the Title VII issue has been percolating in many courts around the country. Here in New York, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals has had several recent panel decisions in which the judges have refused to allow sexual orientation discrimination claims because they are bound by earlier decisions of the court to reject them, although in some cases they have said that the gay plaintiff could maintain their Title VII case if they could show gender nonconforming behavior sufficient to evoke the stereotype theory. In one of these cases, the chief judge of the circuit wrote a concurring opinion, suggesting that it was time for the Circuit to reconsider the issue by the full court.  In another of these cases, Zarda v. Altitude Express, the court recently granted a petition for reconsideration by the full bench, appellants’ briefs and amicus briefs were filed late in June, and oral argument has been scheduled for September 26.  The EEOC as well as many LGBT rights and civil liberties organizations and the attorneys general of the three states in the circuit have filed amicus briefs, calling on the 2nd Circuit to follow the 7th Circuit’s lead on this issue.

This sets up an interesting dynamic between the 11th Circuit case, Evans, and the 2nd Circuit case, Zarda.  Lambda’s petition for certiorari (the technical term for seeking Supreme Court review) is due to be filed by 90 days after the denial of its rehearing petition by the 11th Circuit, which would put it early in October, shortly after the 2nd Circuit’s scheduled argument in Zarda.  After Lambda files its petition, the Respondent, Georgia Regional Hospital (perhaps, as a public hospital, represented by the state attorney general’s office), will have up to 30 days to file a response, but this is uncertain, since the hospital failed to send an attorney to argue against Evans’ appeal before the 11th Circuit panel.  Other interested parties who want the Supreme Court to take or reject this case may filed amicus briefs as well.  If Lambda uses all or virtually all of its 90 days to prepare and file its petition, the Supreme Court would most likely not announce whether it will take the case until late October or November.  If it takes the case, oral argument would most likely be held early in 2018, with an opinion expected by the end of the Court’s term in June.

That leaves the question whether the 2nd Circuit will move expeditiously to decide the Zarda case?  Legal observers generally believe that the 2nd Circuit is poised to change its position and follow the 7th Circuit in holding that sexual orientation claims can be litigated under Title VII, but the circuit judges might deem it prudent to hold up until the Supreme Court rules on the Evans petition and, if that petition is granted, the 2nd Circuit might decide to put off a ruling until after the Supreme Court rules.  In that case, there will be no change in the 2nd Circuit’s position until sometime in the spring of 2018, which would be bad news for litigants in the 2nd Circuit.  Indeed, some district judges in the Circuit are clearly champing at the bit to be able to decide sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, and two veteran judges have bucked the circuit precedent recently, refusing to dismiss sexual orientation cases, arguing that the 2nd Circuit’s precedents are outmoded.  A few years ago the 2nd Circuit accepted the argument in a race discrimination case that an employer violated Title VII by discriminating against a person for engaging in a mixed-race relationship, and some judges see this as supporting the analogous argument that discriminating against somebody because they are attracted to a person of the same-sex is sex discrimination.

The 2nd Circuit has in the past moved to rule quickly on an LGBT issue in a somewhat similar situation.  In 2012, cases were moving up through the federal courts challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which had been held unconstitutional by several district courts.  A race to the Supreme Court was emerging between cases from Boston (1st Circuit), New York (2nd Circuit), and San Francisco (9th Circuit).  The Supreme Court received a petition to review the 1st Circuit case, where GLAD represented the plaintiffs.  The ACLU, whose case on behalf of Edith Windsor was pending before the 2nd Circuit, filed a petition with the Supreme Court seeking to leapfrog the district court and bring the issue directly up to the highest court.  After the ACLU filed its petition, the 2nd Circuit moved quickly to issue a decision, and the Supreme Court granted the petition.  Meanwhile, Lambda Legal, representing the plaintiff whose case was pending in the 9th Circuit, had filed its own petition asking the Supreme Court to grant review before the 9th Circuit decided that appeal.  It was all a bit messy, but ultimately the Court granted the ACLU’s petition and held the other petitions pending its ultimate decision, announced on June 26, 2013, declaring DOMA unconstitutional.  If the 2nd Circuit moves quickly, it might be able to turn out an opinion before the Supreme Court has announced whether it will review the Evans case, as it did in 2012 in the DOMA case (although that was just a panel decision, not a ruling by the full circuit bench.)  The timing might be just right for that.

Another concern, of course, is the composition of the Supreme Court bench when this issue is to be decided. At present, the five justices who made up the majority in the DOMA and marriage equality cases are still on the Court, but three of them, Justices Anthony Kennedy (who wrote those opinions), Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer, are the three oldest justices, and there have been rumors about Kennedy considering retirement.  Donald Trump’s first appointee to the Court, Neil Gorsuch, filling the seat previously occupied by arch-homophobe Antonin Scalia, immediately showed his own anti-LGBT colors with a disingenuous dissenting opinion issued on June 26 in a case from Arkansas involving birth certificates for the children of lesbian couples, and it seems likely that when or if Trump gets another appointment, he will appoint a person of similar views.  Kennedy, who turns 81 this month, has not made a retirement announcement and has hired a full roster of court clerks for the October 2017 Term, so it seems likely he intends to serve at least one more year.  There is no indication that Ginsburg, 84, or Breyer, 79 in August, plan to retire, but given the ages of all three justices, nothing is certain.

Lecture for Investiture as Robert F. Wagner Professor of Labor and Employment Law

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

Arthur S. Leonard, Lecture for Investiture as Robert F. Wagner Professor of Labor and Employment Law, New York Law School, April 26, 2017

A Battle Over Statutory Interpretation: Title VII and Claims of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Discrimination

I feel particularly honored to have my name associated with that of United States Senator Robert F. Wagner, Sr., NYLS Class of 1900, a hero of the New Deal whose legislative leadership gave us such important achievements as the National Labor Relations Act – commonly known among labor law practitioners as the Wagner Act – and the Social Security Act — laws that have shaped our nation for generations.   Senator Wagner was an immigrant who made an indelible mark on the United States. I hope that in some small way I have made a contribution that makes this named chair fitting.

I decided to select a topic for this talk that would bring together the two major areas of my teaching and scholarship: labor and employment law, and sexuality law. These intersect in the question whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans employment discrimination against an individual because of his or her sex, will be open to claims by job applicants and workers that they have suffered discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We are at a decisive point in the judicial battle over that question, having achieved just weeks ago the breakthrough of our first affirmative appellate ruling on the sexual orientation question, following several years of encouraging developments on the gender identity question.

To understand the significance of this, we have to go back more than half a century, to the period after World War II when the modern American gay rights movement began stirring with the protests of recent military veterans against unequal benefits treatment, with the formation of pioneering organizations like the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles and New York and The Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco, and with the vital behind-the-scenes work undertaken by gay scholars as the great law reform effort of the Model Penal Code was being launched by the American Law Institute. That postwar period of the late 1940s and 1950s played out alongside the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, for which the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a signal achievement.

The early gay rights advocacy groups had their lists of goals, and some kind of protection against discrimination was prominent among them, but that task seemed monumental, at a time when there was no federal statute prohibiting employment discrimination of any kind. Until Illinois adopted the Model Penal Code in 1960, which effectively repealed criminal sanctions for private consensual gay sex, it was a crime in every state; a serious felony with long prison sentences in many. President Dwight Eisenhower issued an executive order shortly after taking office banning the employment of “homosexuals” and “sexual perverts” in the federal civil service. A major immigration law passed during the 1950s for the first time barred homosexuals from immigrating to the U.S. and qualifying for citizenship by labeling us as being “afflicted by psychopathic personality,” making us excludable on medical grounds. The military barred gay people from serving on similar grounds, and many lines of work that required state licensing and determinations of moral fitness systematically excluded LGBT people. To be an ‘openly gay’ lawyer or doctor was virtually unthinkable in the 1950s and on into the 1960s.

When Congress was considering the landmark civil rights bill, first introduced during the Kennedy Administration and shepherded into law by Lyndon Johnson, the idea that lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people might seek or obtain assistance rather than condemnation from Congress seemed a pipe dream. None of the legislators involved with the bill proposed protecting members of these groups from discrimination. Title VII, the provision of the bill dealing with employment discrimination, was limited in its original form to discrimination because of race or color, religion, or national origin. A floor amendment, introduced by Howard Smith of Virginia, a conservative Southern Democrat who was opposed to the bill, proposed to add “sex” to the prohibited grounds for discrimination. The amendment carried, the bill passed, and it went to the Senate where it was held up by one of the longest filibusters in history – at a time when filibusters involved unbroken floor debate by the opponents of a pending measure, with no vote on the merits until the Chamber was thoroughly exhausted and no opponent could be found to continue speaking. The leadership of the Senate, trying to avoid having the bill bottled up in committees headed by conservative senior Southern senators, had sent the bill direct to the floor with a tight limit on amendments. Thus committee reports that would have provided a source of legislative history on the meaning of “sex” in the bill are missing. The only floor amendment relating to the addition of “sex” to Title VII was to clarify that pay practices that were authorized under the Equal Pay Act, which had been passed the year before, would not be held to violate Title VII. The statute contained no definition of “sex,” and in the early years after its passage, the general view, held by the courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was that the ban on sex discrimination simply prohibited employers from treating women worse than men – with little agreement about what that meant. In fact, in an early interpretive foray, the Supreme Court decided that Title VII did not prohibit discrimination against women because they became pregnant. The resulting public outcry inspired Congress to amend the statute to make clear that discrimination against a woman because of pregnancy or childbirth was considered to be discrimination because of sex.

Early attempts by gay or transgender people to pursue discrimination claims under Title VII all failed. The EEOC and the courts agreed that protecting people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation or transgender status was not intended by Congress. They embraced a literalistic “plain language” interpretation of Title VII, including a narrow biological understanding of sex.

But something began to happen as the courts considered a wider variety of sex discrimination claims. It became clear that a simplistic concept of sex would not be adequate to achieve the goal of equality of opportunity in the workplace. Legal theorists had been advancing the concept of a “hostile environment” as a form of discrimination, first focusing on the open hostility that many white workers showed to black, Latino and Asian workers in newly-integrated workplaces. During the 1970s the courts began to expand that concept to women who experienced hostility in formerly all-male workplaces as well. Lower federal courts were divided about whether such “atmospherics” of the workplace could be considered terms or conditions of employment when they didn’t directly involve refusals to hire or differences in pay or work assignments. Finally the Supreme Court broke that deadlock in 1986, holding in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that a woman who experienced workplace hostility so severe that it could be said to affect her terms and conditions of employment would have a sex discrimination claim under Title VII, and subsequent cases clarified that the plaintiff did not have to show a tangible injury, although a finding that working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable person would quit would clearly meet the test of a hostile environment. Some courts began to extend this reasoning to complaints by men, in situations where male co-workers subjected them to verbal and even physical harassment.

The Court also began to grapple with the problem of sex stereotypes, and how easily employers and co-workers could fall into stereotyped thinking to the disadvantage of minorities and women. Stereotypes about young mothers’ ability to balance work and home obligations, stereotypes about the ability of women to do physically challenging working, stereotypes about female longevity and the costs of retirement plans – all of these issues came before the Court and ultimately led it to expand the concept of sex discrimination more broadly than legislators of the mid-1960s might have imagined.

The key stereotyping case for building a theory of protection for sexual minorities was decided in 1989 – Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. Ann Hopkins’ bid for partnership was denied because some partners of the firm considered her inadequately feminine. They embraced a stereotype about how a woman partner was supposed to look and behave. Hopkins, with her loud and abrasive manner and appearance, failed to conform to that stereotype. Communicating the firm’s decision to pass over her partnership application, the head of her office told her she could improve her chances for the next round by dressing more femininely, walking more femininely, toning down her speech, wearing make-up and jewelry, having her hair styled. Her substantial contributions to the firm and her leadership in generating new business counted for little, when decision-makers decided she was inadequately feminine to meet their expectations. In an opinion by Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., the Court accepted Hopkins’ argument that allowing such considerations to affect the partnership decision could be evidence of a prohibited discriminatory motivation under Title VII. The Court’s opinion embraced the idea that discrimination because of “gender,” not just discrimination because of biological sex, came within the scope of Title VII’s prohibition. The statutory policy included wiping away gender stereotypes that created barriers to equal opportunity for women in the workplace.

Although Ann Hopkins was not a lesbian and nothing was said about homosexuality in her case, the implications of the ruling became obvious over time as federal courts dealt with a variety of stereotyping claims. A person who suffered discrimination because she did not appear or act the way people expected a woman to appear or act was protected, and that sounded to lots of people like a description of discrimination against transgender people and some – but perhaps not all – lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. The argument seemed particularly strong when an employer discriminated against a person who was hired appearing and acting as a man and then began to transition to living life as a woman.

At the same time, legal academics had begun to publish theoretical arguments supporting the idea that discrimination against gay people was a form of sex discrimination. Among the earliest were Professor Sylvia Law of New York University, whose 1988 article in the Wisconsin Law Review, titled “Homosexuality and the Social Meaning of Gender,” suggested that anti-gay discrimination was about “preserving traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity. Law’s pioneering work was quickly followed by the first of many articles by Andrew Koppelman, first in a student note he published in the Yale Law Journal in 1988 titled “The Miscegenation Analogy: Sodomy Law as Sex Discrimination,” later in his 1994 article in the New York University Law Review titled “Why Discrimination Against Lesbians and Gay Men is Sex Discrimination.” Both Koppelman, now a professor at Northwestern University, and Law proposed theoretical arguments for treating anti-gay discrimination as sex discrimination.

Seizing upon the Price Waterhouse precedent, transgender people and gay people began to succeed in court during the 1990s by arguing that their failure to conform to gender stereotypes was the reason they were denied hiring or continued employment, desirable assignments or promotions. A strange dynamic began to grow in the courts, as judges repeated, over and over again, that Title VII did not prohibit discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, as such, but that it did prohibit discrimination against a person because of his or her failure to conform to gender stereotypes and expectations, regardless of the plaintiff’s sexual orientation. Many of the courts insisted, however, that there was one gender stereotype that could not be the basis of a Title VII claim – that men should be attracted only to women, and women should be attracted only to men. To allow a plaintiff to assert such a claim would dissolve the line that courts were trying to preserve between sex stereotyping claims and sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination claims. Decades of past precedents stood in the way of acknowledging the unworkability of that line.

Ten years after the Price Waterhouse decision, the Supreme Court decided another sex discrimination case, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, with an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia that helped to fuel the broadening interpretation of Title VII. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that a man who is subjected to workplace harassment of a sexual nature by other men could not bring a hostile environment sex discrimination claim under Title VII. The court of appeals reasoned that Congress intended in 1964 to prohibit discrimination against women because they were women or men because they were men, and that such a limited intent could not encompass claims of same-sex harassment, which would be beyond the expectations of the legislators who passed that law. In reversing this ruling, Justice Scalia, who was generally skeptical about the use of legislative history to interpret statutes, wrote for the Court that the interpretation of Title VII was not restricted to the intentions of the 1964 Congress. While conceding that same-sex harassment was not one of the “evils” that Congress intended to attack by passing Title VII, he wrote:

“Statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed. Title VII prohibits discrimination because of sex in employment. This must extend to sex-based discrimination of any kind that meets the statutory requirements.”

Thus, as our collective, societal understanding of sex, gender, sexuality, identity and orientation broadens, our concept of sex discrimination as prohibited by Title VII also broadens. With the combined force of Price Waterhouse and Oncale, some federal courts began to push the boundaries even further during the first decade of the 21st century.

By the time the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in 2012 in Macy v. Holder, a federal sector sex discrimination case, that a transgender plaintiff could pursue a Title VII claim against a division of the Justice Department, its opinion could cite a multitude of federal court decisions in support of that conclusion, including two Title VII decisions by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals involving public safety workers who were transitioning, and a 2011 ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that a Georgia state agency’s discrimination against an employee because she was transitioning violated the Equal Protection Clause as sex discrimination. There were also federal appellate rulings to similar effect under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Violence against Women Act, as well as numerous trial court rulings under Title VII. So the EEOC was following the trend, not necessarily leading the parade, when it found that discrimination against a person because of their gender identity was a form of sex discrimination.

After the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, striking down a state sodomy law under the 14th Amendment, and further rulings in 2013 and 2015 in the Windsor and Obergefell cases, leading to a national right to marry for same-sex couples, the persistence by many courts in asserting that Title VII did not prohibit sexual orientation discrimination appeared increasingly archaic. Just weeks after the Obergefell decision, the EEOC issued another landmark ruling in July 2015, David Baldwin v. Anthony Foxx, reversing half a century of EEOC precedent and holding that sexual orientation discrimination claims were “necessarily” sex discrimination claims covered by Title VII. The Commission ruled that a gay air traffic controller could bring a Title VII claim against the Department of Transportation, challenging its refusal to hire him for a full-time position at the Miami air traffic control center because of his sexual orientation.

Building on the Price Waterhouse, Oncale and Macy decisions, the EEOC embraced several alternative theories to support this ruling. One was the now well-established proposition that an employer may not rely on “sex-based considerations” or “take gender into account” when making employment decisions, unless sex was a bona fide occupational qualification – a narrow statutory exception that is rarely relevant to a sexual orientation or gender identity case.

“Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is premised on sex-based preferences, assumptions, expectations, stereotypes, or norms,” wrote the EEOC. “Sexual orientation as a concept cannot be defined or understood without reference to sex. Sexual orientation is inseparable from and inescapably linked to sex and, therefore, allegations of sexual orientation discrimination involve sex-based considerations.” By the summer of 2015, the agency was able to cite several federal trial court decisions applying these concepts in particular cases.

Another theory was based on the associational discrimination theory. Courts had increasingly accepted the argument that discrimination against a person because he or she was in an interracial relationship was discrimination because of race. The analogy was irresistible: Discriminating against somebody because they are in a same-sex relationship must be sex discrimination, because it involved taking the employee’s sex into account. Denying a job because a man is partnered with a man rather than with a woman means that his sex, as well as his partner’s sex, was taken into account by the employer in making the decision.

Finally, the Commission embraced the stereotyping theory that some courts had refused to fully embrace: that sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination because it necessarily involves discrimination based on gender stereotypes, not just those involving appearance, mannerisms, grooming, or speech, but also stereotypes about appropriate sexual attractions. Quoting a Massachusetts federal trial court ruling, the agency wrote, “Sexual orientation discrimination and harassment are often, if not always, motivated by a desire to enforce heterosexually defined gender norms. . . The harasser may discriminate against an openly gay co-worker, or a co-worker that he perceives to be gay, whether effeminate or not, because he thinks, ‘real’ men should date women, and not other men.” Professor Law’s theoretical proposition of 1988 was now surfacing in court and agency rulings a quarter century later.

The EEOC also rejected the view that adopting this expanded definition of sex discrimination required new congressional action, pointing out that the courts had been expanding the definition of sex discrimination under Title VII continually since the 1970s, with minimal intervention or assistance from Congress.

Since 2015 the issue of sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII has risen to the level of the circuit courts of appeals. In most of the circuits, there are precedents dating back decades holding that sexual orientation claims may not be litigated under Title VII. These precedents are softened in some circuits that have accept discrimination claims from gay men or lesbians who plausibly asserted that their visible departure from gender stereotypes provoked discrimination against them. But many of these appeals courts have strained to draw a line between the former and the latter, and have rejected stereotyping claims where they perceived them as attempts to “bootstrap” a sexual orientation claim into Title VII territory.

Ironically, one judge who emphatically rejected such a case several years ago with the bootstrapping objection, Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit, is the author of a concurring opinion in this new round of circuit court rulings in which he argues that it is legitimate for federal courts to “update” statutes without waiting for Congress in order to bring them into line with current social trends. This was part of the 7th Circuit’s en banc ruling in Kimberly Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, the April 4, 2017, decision that is the first by a federal appeals court to embrace all aspects of the EEOC’s Baldwin decision and hold that a lesbian could pursue a sexual orientation claim under Title VII. Posner’s argument echoes one made decades ago by Guido Calabresi, then a professor at Yale, now a judge on the 2nd Circuit, in a series of lectures published as a book titled “A Common Law for the Age of Statutes,” in which he argued that legislative inertia would justify courts in updating old statutes to meet contemporary needs. Although Posner did not cite Calabresi’s book, his argument is much the same. He quoted both Justice Scalia’s statement from Oncale and an earlier iteration of similar sentiments in an opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes from 1920, in which Holmes wrote: “The case before us must be considered in the light of our whole experience and not merely in that of what was said a hundred years ago.”

The federal circuit courts follow the rule that when a three-judge panel of the circuit interprets a statute, it creates a binding circuit precedent which can be reversed only by the full bench of the court in an en banc ruling, or by the Supreme Court, or by Congress changing the statute. The Hively ruling reversed a three-judge panel decision that had rejected the plaintiff’s Title VII claim based on prior circuit precedents. The vote was 8-3. Incidentally, 5 of the judges in the 8-member majority were appointees of Republican presidents. The employer in that case quickly announced that it would not seek Supreme Court review, but this ruling creates a split among the circuit courts, so it is only a matter of time before the Supreme Court receives a petition asking for a definitive interpretation of Title VII on this question.

The 7th Circuit opinion by Chief Judge Diane Wood accepted all of the EEOC’s theories from the Baldwin decision. Judge Wood concluded that “it would require considerable calisthenics to remove the ‘sex’ from ‘sexual orientation.’” “We hold that a person who alleges that she experienced employment discrimination on the basis of her sexual orientation has put forth a case of sex discrimination for Title VII purposes.”

Dissenting Judge Diane Sykes criticized the majority for deploying “a judge-empowering, common-law decision method that leaves a great deal of room for judicial discretion.” Here the battle is joined. For the majority, it is appropriate to trace the development of case law over decades, treating the concept of sex discrimination as evolving. For Judge Posner, concurring, it is legitimate for the court to set aside the pretense of ordinary interpretation and to “update” an old statute to reflect contemporary understandings. And for Judge Sykes, these are both illegitimate because it violates the division of authority between the legislature and the courts to adopt an “interpretation” that would be outside the understanding of the legislators who enacted the statute.

Now the scenario is playing out in other circuits. In recent weeks, the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit and the New York-based 2nd Circuit have issued panel rulings refusing to allow sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII. The panels did not consider the issue afresh and decided to reaffirm the old rulings on the merits, but rather asserted that they were powerless to do so because of the existing circuit precedents. In both of the cases decided in March, Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital and Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, the panels sent the cases back to the trial court to see whether they could be litigated as sex stereotyping cases instead of sexual orientation cases. But one judge dissented in the 11th Circuit, arguing that an old pre-Price Waterhouse precedent should not longer be treated as binding. The 2nd Circuit panel rejected the trial judge’s conclusion that because the gay plaintiff’s complaint included evidence that his treatment was tainted by homophobia he could not assert a sex stereotyping claim, and two members of the panel wrote a concurring opinion virtually accepting the EEOC’s view of the matter and suggesting that the circuit should reconsider the issue en banc.. In both cases, the panels took the position that sex stereotyping claims could be evaluated without reference to the sexual orientation of the plaintiff. And, in both of these cases, lawyers for the plaintiffs are asking the circuits to convene en banc benches to reconsider the issue, as a preliminary to seeking possible review in the Supreme Court. A different 2nd Circuit panel has also issued a ruling where sex stereotyping of the sort that is actionable in the 2nd Circuit is not part of the case, and counsel in that case is also filing a petition for en banc review.

One or more of these petitions is likely to be granted. While we may see more en banc rulings in favor of allowing sexual orientation discrimination claims, at some point a new circuit split may develop, leading inevitably to the Supreme Court. Or the issue could get to the Supreme Court by an employer seeking further review, since older rulings in other circuits still present the kind of circuit splits that the Supreme Court tries to resolve.

That leads to the highly speculative game of handicapping potential Supreme Court rulings. Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation restores the ideological balance that existed before Justice Scalia’s death. The Court as then constituted decided the historic same-sex marriage cases, Windsor and Obergefell, with Justice Kennedy, a Republican appointee, writing for the Court in both cases, as well as in earlier gay rights victories, Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas. These opinions suggest a degree of empathy for gay litigants that might lead Kennedy to embrace an expansive interpretation of Title VII. He is part of a generation of appellate judges appointed by Ronald Reagan during the 1980s who made up half of the majority in the recent 7th Circuit ruling: Richard Posner, Frank Easterbrook, Joel Flaum, and Kenneth Ripple. Another member of that majority, Ilana Rovner, was appointed by Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush. This line-up underlies optimism that Kennedy might join with the Clinton and Obama appointees on the Supreme Court to produce a five-judge majority to embrace the EEOC’s interpretation. Such optimism may also draw on Kennedy’s decisive rejection of the argument that legal rules are frozen at the time of their adoption and not susceptible to new interpretations in response to evolving social understandings. This was the underlying theme of his opinions in the four major gay rights decisions.

Since the 1970s supporters of gay rights have introduced bills in Congress to amend the federal civil rights laws to provide explicit protection for LGBT people. None of those attempts has succeeded to date. If the judicial battle reaches a happy conclusion, those efforts might be rendered unnecessary, although there is always a danger in statutory law of Congress overruling through amendment, but that seems unlikely unless the Republicans attain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

On that optimistic note, I conclude with thanks for your attention, and I am happy to answer questions now.

 

Marriage Equality: The Day After and the Sequels

Posted on: October 8th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

The day after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review pro-marriage equality rulings by three federal courts of appeals in four cases directly affecting the marriage bans in five states, another circuit was heard from.  A unanimous three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on October 7 in favor of marriage equality in cases from Nevada and Idaho.  Writing for the panel, Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who was appointed to the court by Jimmy Carter, found that the marriage bans failed to meet the 9th Circuit’s heightened scrutiny standard. Later on  October 7th the court exercised its discretion to issue its mandate to the two district courts, declaring its decision immediately effective.  Latta v. Otter, 2014 Westlaw 4977682.

Nevada officials quickly fell into line.  Governor Brian Sandoval had concluded earlier in the year that the Nevada marriage ban was no longer defensible, so the state did not defend its law before the Court of Appeals, leaving it to an intervening anti-marriage-equality group called “Coalition for the Protection of Marriage” to mount the defense.  That group signed up Idaho’s attorney to represent them.  In light of this, Sandoval was ready to have the state comply with the order, with marriages starting right away.  The Coalition for the Protection of Marriage undoubtedly lacks standing to file its own appeal, in light of the state government’s decision not to do so and the lack of any Nevada law authorizing private groups to represent the state in federal litigation.  Any argument to the contrary by the Coalition would undoubtedly meet defeat because of the way the Supreme Court handled the Proposition 8 case in 2013, finding that proponents of the California anti-marriage initiative lacked standing to appeal a lower court ruling to the 9th Circuit or the Supreme Court.

Idaho was a different story, however, as Governor Butch Otter authorized attorney Gene Schaerr, a Washington-based Supreme Court litigator, to file an emergency application for a stay pending appeal with the 9th Circuit and with the Supreme Court.  Otter’s Supreme Court application, filed on Wednesday morning, October 8, was addressed to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who receives such petitions from the 9th Circuit.  Kennedy quickly granted a temporary stay, giving the plaintiffs until 5 pm on October 9 to respond, and he was expected to refer the application to the full court.   Schaerr’s application said that Idaho would be filing a petition for certiorari, asking the Court to address two questions: whether sexual orientation discrimination is subject to heightened scrutiny, and whether bans on same-sex marriage are actually a form of sexual orientation discrimination.  Schaerr suggested in his application that the Court could address both of these questions without rendering a final decision on whether same-sex couples have a right to marry, and if the Court found that the 9th Circuit panel erred as to either one, it could send the case back to the 9th Circuit for reconsideration.  This would kick the can down the road substantially, putting off a final decision in Idaho for a year or more.

Because the 9th Circuit had consolidated the two cases for decision, there was a single mandate, and Justice Kennedy’s Order referenced the docket numbers of both cases, so technically the mandate was stayed for both Nevada and Idaho, but as a practical matter Nevada was not planning to appeal, so the stay did not interfere with marriages in Nevada.  [Later in the day, responding to a request for clarification by Lambda Legal, which represents the Nevada plaintiffs, Kennedy issued a revised order, staying the 9th Circuit mandate ONLY as it applies to Idaho.  No stay for Nevada, so no interference with implementation of the decision in Nevada.]

The Supreme Court may respond quickly to this application, since it dismissed seven certiorari petitions just days ago, lifting stays in four very similar cases.  The most widespread interpretation of the Supreme Court’s unexplained dismissals was that the four members of the Court most opposed to same-sex marriage would not hear the cases for fear that Justice Kennedy would join with other marriage-equality supporters to establish a nationwide precedent, and that the members who favored marriage equality saw no urgency to address the issue as long as the courts of appeals were ruling in favor of marriage equality.  On that reading, it seems likely that the Court would deny the stay unless a majority of the Justices are taken with Schaerr’s argument that the Court should address the doctrinal circuit court splits before allowing marriage equality to spread further.  It takes a majority vote to grant a stay.

“We hold,” wrote Reinhardt for the 9th Circuit panel, “that the Idaho and Nevada laws at issue violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because they deny lesbians and gays who wish to marry persons of the same sex a right they afford to individuals who wish to marry persons of the opposite sex, and do not satisfy the heightened scrutiny standard we adopted in SmithKline.”

SmithKline v. Abbott Laboratories is a case decided by the 9th Circuit on January 21 of this year, holding that a person could not be struck from a jury list just because they are lesbian or gay.  In that opinion, the court of appeals concluded that the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act had effectively applied heightened scrutiny by placing the burden on the government to justify unequal treatment of same-sex marriages under DOMA.  Supreme Court precedents provide that if a particular basis for discrimination requires heightened scrutiny, then it can’t be used to strike somebody from a jury list without an individualized showing that the person can render impartial jury service in the particular case.

Reinhardt found that Nevada and Idaho had failed to meet this test.  Although his analysis followed along what are now very familiar lines from the prior court of appeals opinions, one footnote jumped out as particularly quotable, referring to Governor Otter’s argument that same-sex marriage would contribute to a “shift towards a consent-based, personal relationship model of marriage, which is more adult-centric and less child-centric.”  Commented Reinhardt: “He also states, in conclusory fashion, that allowing same-sex marriage will lead opposite-sex couples to abuse alcohol and drugs, engage in extramarital affairs, take on demanding work schedules, and participate in time-consuming hobbies.  We seriously doubt that allowing committed same-sex couples to settle down in legally recognized marriages will drive opposite-sex couples to sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.”  Some wit!

Because he was applying the heightened scrutiny test, Judge Reinhardt did not opine directly as to whether the marriage bans lacked a rational basis.  About the closest he came was to say that “defendants have failed to demonstrate that these laws further any legitimate purpose,” so “they unjustifiably discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and are in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.”

Thus, the panel affirmed the decision from Idaho and reversed the decision from Nevada, sending the Nevada case back to the district court “for the prompt issuance of an injunction.”  There was no need for a similar order concerning Idaho, since the trial court had already issued an injunction whose effect was stayed until the 9th Circuit could rule.  The 9th Circuit’s ruling effectively lifted that stay.

Although the other judges on the marriage panel joined Judge Reinhardt’s opinion, one of them, Clinton-appointee Marsha Berzon, wrote a concurring opinion, arguing that the case could alternatively be decided as a sex discrimination case.  Under Supreme Court precedents, sex discrimination cases merit heightened scrutiny.  Of course, applying heightened scrutiny led Berzon to the same conclusion reached by the entire panel on the merits.  But she focused her analysis on a point that was only briefly mentioned by the full panel decision: that Monte Neil Stewart, the attorney who argued in defense of the Idaho and Nevada laws, had advanced as his central argument one that relied heavily on stereotypes about the roles of men and women when it comes to raising children.  The Supreme Court’s sex discrimination jurisprudence sharply rejects any policy that relies on stereotypes about men and women.  Judge Berzon’s opinion runs through a litany of major Supreme Court cases that rejected sex stereotypes in a wide variety of factual contexts, and she found that they were no more a legitimate basis for policymaking in this case.

Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, Judge Reinhardt released his own separate concurring opinion, of course agreeing with the opinion he wrote for the panel but adding his view that this case also involved the fundamental constitutional right to marry, and thus could have been decided as a Due Process case using the strict scrutiny standard that the Supreme Court applies when it is faced with a law that abridges a fundamental right.  Fundamental rights are those that are deeply embedded in our history and tradition.  Opponents of marriage equality have argued that since same-sex marriage is a very new phenomenon, it cannot be considered a fundamental right.  Judge Reinhardt agreed with the plaintiffs in these cases that the opponents have framed the fundamental rights question too narrowly, and he referred to the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision striking down the Texas sodomy law, in which Justice Anthony Kennedy made a similar point in criticizing the Supreme Court’s notorious 1986 Georgia sodomy law decision, Bowers v. Hardwick, for defining too narrowly the right at issue.  Reinhardt concluded that the right to marry recognized by the Supreme Court broadly encompasses the issue of choice of marital partner and is not narrowly focused on different-sex couples.  He invoked a series of Supreme Court marriage decisions that found a right to marry in situations where couples could not engage in procreative activity, thus undermining the defendants’ argument that procreative potential is the defining characteristic of marriage.

However, neither Judge Berzon’s sex discrimination argument nor Judge Reinhardt’s fundamental rights argument won agreement from the other judges on the panel.  (The third judge, Clinton-appointee Ronald Gould, did not write a separate opinion.)  Therefore, the decision of the panel as such is based solely on sexual orientation discrimination.

The 9th Circuit’s SmithKline decision was not tested by en banc review or Supreme Court review, as the losing party in that appeal, Abbott Laboratories, decided not to take the case further on that question.  Thus, although it is a binding 9th Circuit precedent, it appears to be an outlier as a matter of federal constitutional law.  The 2nd Circuit adopted a heightened scrutiny standard when it was reviewing the DOMA case, but the Supreme Court did not specifically endorse that aspect of the ruling when it affirmed the 2nd Circuit’s decision to strike down Section 3 of DOMA.  The 1st Circuit had used the rational basis test to strike down the same provision of DOMA in a separate case from Massachusetts.  And, as Gene Schaerr, the attorney hired by Idaho to represent it in the Supreme Court, observed in the application for a stay, the 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, 10th, 11th, D.C. and Federal circuits have all adopted the rational basis standard for evaluating sexual orientation discrimination claims.

Thus, although it might seem far-fetched that Idaho could get a stay pending appeal and perhaps a grant of Supreme Court review when that Court had turned down seven petitions just days before, there was an outside chance that Schaerr’s strategy would pay-off, intriguing enough justices to induce them to delay the implementation of this ruling while they decide whether to grant a petition for certiorari from Idaho.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court “decision not to decide” on October 6 and the 9th Circuit’s decision on October 7 were having immediate effects.  In Colorado, a state in the 10th Circuit where the attorney general, John Suthers, had filed an appeal of a district court pro-marriage-equality decision, the writing on the wall was apparent to Suthers, who joined with marriage equality plaintiffs to get existing stays lifted and advised clerks throughout the state on October 7 to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.  When Colorado is added to the five states directly affected by the denials of certiorari, six states were added to the 19 (plus District of Columbia) where same-sex marriage is allowed and recognized.  Elsewhere in the 10th Circuit, state authorities in Wyoming and Kansas did not seem inclined to throw in the towel, and existing lawsuits will continue to be defended.

In the 4th Circuit, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order on October 7 directing that “all entities in the executive branch, including agencies, authorities, commissions, departments, and all institutions of higher education further evaluate all policies and take all necessary and appropriate legal measures to comply” with the 4th Circuit’s decision, which held that the state’s ban on same-sex marriages unconstitutionally violates a fundamental right to marry.  This would mean, for example, that state employees with same-sex spouses should be able to enroll them immediately for employee benefits coverage.  Elsewhere in the 4th Circuit, federal trial judges asked the parties in pending lawsuits in West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina to file papers giving their positions on how the cases should proceed.  In North Carolina, the attorney general had already indicated that he would no longer defend the state’s ban.  In South Carolina, although the attorney general was talking tough about soldiering on with the defense, at least one county probate judge began issuing marriage licenses on October 7.

In the 9th Circuit, there are federal marriage equality cases pending in Arizona, Alaska and Montana, and it seemed likely that those will proceed to summary judgments for the plaintiffs quickly unless the Supreme Court grants a stay pending appeal of the 9th Circuit’s decision, in which cases the judges might decide to delay their rulings and see what happens with Idaho’s anticipated petition for certiorari.

And, of course, still to be heard from were the 6th Circuit, where arguments on appeals from four states were heard early in August, and the 5th and 11th Circuits, where appeals from Louisiana, Texas and Florida are pending but arguments haven’t been scheduled yet.  In the Louisiana appeal in the 5th Circuit, Lambda Legal has accepted an invitation to join as co-counsel with the local attorneys representing the plaintiffs.

The 9th Circuit’s October 7 opinion listed an army of attorneys participating as co-counsel or amicus on all sides of the cases, which had been argued on September 8.  As noted above, Monte Neil Stewart argued on behalf of the Idaho defendants and the Coalition defending the Nevada ban.  Tara Borelli of Lambda Legal’s Atlanta office argued on behalf of the Nevada plaintiffs.  Deborah Ferguson, a Boise attorney, argued on behalf of the Idaho plaintiffs.

Same-Sex Marriages in Utah – “On Hold”?

Posted on: January 9th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

On December 20, 2013, US District Judge Shelby ruled in Kitchen v. Herbert that Utah’s constitutional amendment and statutes banning the performance or recognition of same-sex marriages violated the 14th Amendment. He was ruling on cross-motions for summary judgment. Since the state’s motion did not ask him to grant a stay in case his ruling went against them, he didn’t stay his ruling, which culminated in an injunction barring enforcement of the same-sex marriage ban. Immediately upon announcement of his ruling, same-sex couples started showing up at county clerk offices seeking – and, in many counties, getting – marriage licenses, and since then over 1300 same-sex marriages have been performed in Utah.

The attorney general’s office contacted Judge Shelby after the opinion was issued asking for a stay, and was told that they had to file a motion to that effect and give the other side an opportunity to respond. The motion was filed, responded to, and denied by Judge Shelby on December 23. On December 24, a two-judge motion panel of the 10th Circuit also denied a stay, but ordered that review of the district court’s opinion be expedited. A briefing schedule requires all briefing to be concluded by the end of February, and an argument will probably take place shortly thereafter. If the 10th Circuit really wants to expedite things — and take some excessive heat off of a three-judge panel — they should consider hearing the case en banc (by the entire 10-judge bench) right off the mark, since anything a three-judge panel decides might draw a petition for rehearing en banc anyway.

The state didn’t file its application for a stay with the Supreme Court until December 31, by which time perhaps as many as a thousand same-sex marriages had been performed. That Court granted a stay of the district court’s injunction, pending a ruling by the 10th Circuit, on January 6. So, effective upon issuance of the Supreme Court’s order, new same-sex marriages cannot be contracted in Utah while the stay is in effect.

The Utah Attorney General, Sean Reyes, announced, after some study, that the question of the legal status of the same-sex marriages performed from December 20 to January 6 is unprecedented and uncertain. The Governor’s Office issued an advisory notice on January 8 to state agencies asserting that the marriages are “on hold” and will not be recognized by the state while the stay is in effect. Governor Herbert’s position is that while the stay is in effect, the constitutional amendment and laws declared unconstitutional by Judge Shelby remain in effect and binding on the state. Since those laws ban recognition of same-sex marriages, the governor says, the state of Utah may not recognize these marriages. He temporized, however, stating that actions taken by the married couples prior to the stay would not be reversed. At least, he gave an example of a change of name on a driver’s license. If this was obtained before the stay, the state would not contest it — for now. He did not clarify, however, the interesting question whether same-sex spouses of state employees who signed up for spousal benefits before the stay would remain entitled to those benefits. His announcement does clearly imply that any applications to the state for anything requiring a valid marriage that was not filed prior to January 6 won’t be honored by the state.

My question is this: The Supreme Court stayed the district court’s injunction, but that’s all it stayed. It could not stay the 14th Amendment. That remains in effect in Utah. And that applies to these 1300-plus marriages. The announcement from the Governor’s Office said that its non-recognition position “is not intended to comment on the legal status of those same-sex marriages — that is for the courts to decide.” And there are more courts that have jurisdiction to decide that question than just the 10th Circuit in the pending appeal. So, does the state’s refusal to recognize the same-sex marriages violate the 14th Amendment rights of those couples?

What if, for example, one spouse in a same-sex marriage performed in Utah on December 20 suddenly dies? The governor would say that the question whether their surviving spouse is recognized as such under Utah law must be in held in abeyance — until, apparently, the final resolution of Kitchen v. Herbert, which might not be until 2015 or even later. In a similar situation, however, a federal court in Ohio ordered the state to recognize a surviving spouse from an out-of-state same-sex marriage, even though Ohio has a constitutional amendment and statutes similar to those of Utah. The district court in Ohio identified a constitutional “right to remain married” that outweighed whatever interest the state was asserting in refusing to recognize the marriage. And the court pointed to such realities as restrictions on burials in family plots and access to death benefits that would pose substantial harm to a surviving spouse whose marriage is not recognized. Utah recognizes other out-of-state marriages for such purposes. What valid policy reason would it have for refusing to recognize these marriages that took place pursuant to valid Utah marriage licenses? Do these 1300-plus Utah couples now have a constitutional “right to remain married” and would a state or federal court enforce that right by ordering the state to recognize a surviving spouse?

One can spin out numerous such hypotheticals. The longer the stay is in effect, the longer the normal vicissitudes of life will present situations where these couples whose marriages are considered by the state to be “on hold” will need to have decisions made. Litigation seems likely.

An emerging trend in the lower federal courts is to construe U.S. v. Windsor broadly as supporting the constitutional arguments of marriage equality advocates. (Justice Scalia construed it that way in his dissent, as Judge Shelby was quick to point out.) While the Utah case is pending before the 10th Circuit, we can expect to get more district court summary judgment rulings in the numerous pending marriage equality cases. Motions for summary judgment are already on file or soon to be filed in cases pending in other federal districts, as well as in many state courts. Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, Pennsylvania. . . The list goes on. More district court opinions are going to be issued in the months ahead, and the 9th Circuit may be ruling during 2014 on the appeal now pending from an adverse marriage equality ruling by the district court in Nevada, a ruling that predates Windsor and whose reliance on Baker v. Nelson as authority for rejecting the constitutional challenge appears risible in light of Windsor. Marriage equality plaintiffs may lose some of these motions, but it is likely that they will win some, and public opinion will advance as more opinions issue. These cases are pending in states where the local and state officials are inclined to defend their same-sex marriage bans, and by now they may be waking up to the need to ask for stays when litigating summary judgment motions, so we may not have a repeat of what happened in Utah (and, last year, in New Jersey) in terms of a district court order actually going into effect while an appeal is pending. Surely one thing the Supreme Court’s Order has done is to signal lower courts that marriage equality rulings are to be stayed pending appeal.

If marriage equality advocates win a circuit court of appeals ruling or a state supreme court ruling premised on the federal constitution, the Supreme Court would pretty definitely grant review, although it could abstain if it wanted to do so. But I would predict that the Supreme Court would be deluged by amicus briefs from state attorneys general and governors urging it to grant review, and perhaps the Solicitor General would join in, since the S.G. ended up coming in on the side of the marriage equality advocates in the California Proposition 8 case when it got to the Supreme Court and could logically argue that it would be in the interest of the nation to have a definitive ruling on marriage equality.

Most lower courts and legal scholars now seem to feel that the Windsor case lays a firm groundwork for the Supreme Court to rule for marriage equality, although there is some dissent from that view, mainly focused on the federalism comments in Justice Kennedy’s opinion and the particular wording of the operative portion of the opinion. Justice Kennedy spoke in terms of the right of married couples to “equal dignity” from the federal government, but he referred to a dignity “conferred upon” those couples by the states that allow them to marry, and I’ve heard the argument that this signals a right of states to decide who can marry. I don’t think that the grant of a stay need affect the analysis of the ultimate question on the merits, although some might construe it as signaling disagreement by a majority of the Court with Judge Shelby’s decision. I think that would be an unduly pessimistic reading. Issuing a stay in a case like this seems like the natural thing to do. The 9th Circuit did it in the Prop 8 case, and the 2nd and 1st Circuits did it in the DOMA cases. I speculate that the Supreme Court majority (perhaps even all of them) was sympathetic to the state’s argument that implementation of a major social change should not take place on the basis of a single-judge district court decision awaiting review on a question that the Supreme Court has not yet decided, and this would justify a stay, at least until the 10th Circuit rules, regardless of whether the Supreme Court was likely to reverse upon further appeal.

As to how the Supreme Court would ultimately rule, I remain unsure. I had found Justice Scalia’s dissent persuasive on this point, if a bit overblown in his usual dissenting style, but I’ve heard at least moderately persuasive arguments to the contrary: that although Justice Kennedy disavowed deciding the case on federalism grounds, his analysis incorporates a heavy dose of federalism in any event, and there is plenty of language in his opinion to quote in support of the idea that defining marriage is a state prerogative in the first instance. But he was also careful to note that states must act within constitutional bounds, as the Supreme Court has ruled several times in striking down state marriage restrictions. So I remain uncertain how Kitchen v. Herbert may ultimately be decided by the Court, under the likely name of Herbert v. Kitchen.

As to what may happen in the 10th Circuit, I was cheered to read a comment in the Salt Lake Tribune that Prof. Lynn Wardle of Brigham Young University Law School, an ardent opponent of same-sex marriage whose name appears on briefs in this case, seems resigned to losing in the 10th Circuit. The circuit is “evenly balanced” at present in terms of the political affiliations of the presidents who appointed the judges — 5 by Democrats and 5 by Republicans – but that doesn’t necessarily tell us how this will come out on the merits. (A tie vote, by the way, would affirm the district court by default.) The two-judge panel that denied the stay had one Republican appointee and one Democratic appointee. The 2nd and 1st Circuit DOMA panels did not fall along political lines, either. The district judge in Massachusetts who ruled against DOMA was a Republican appointee, as was the Circuit judge who wrote the opinion affirming him, as was Justice Kennedy who wrote for the Court in Windsor. So we just have to wait and see on the merits.

But for now, I think it would be interesting to see what a Utah or federal court might say about the refusal of the state to recognize lawfully-contracted same-sex marriages while the stay is in effect, and I would anticipate that some lawsuits may be filed relatively quickly.