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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.

5th Circuit Tosses Challenge to Mississippi HB 1523 on Standing Grounds

Posted on: June 24th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the Houston-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit dissolved a preliminary injunction and dismissed two lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of H.B. 1523, a Mississippi law enacted last year intended to assure that people who hold anti-gay or anti-transgender views cannot be subject to any adverse action from their state or local governments.  Barber v. Bryant, 2017 Westlaw 2702075, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 11116 (June 22, 2017).

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, finding that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their claim that the law violated their equal protection rights as well as the constitutional prohibition on establishment of religion, issued a preliminary injunction last June 30, so the law, which was to become effective last July 1, has not gone into effect. Ruling on June 22, the panel found that none of the plaintiffs had standing to bring this challenge to the law because, in the court’s opinion, none had suffered an individualized injury that would give them the right to challenge the law.

The court was careful to state that because it did not have jurisdiction over the case, it was not expressing an opinion about whether the law was constitutional.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys from the two cases announced that they would seek “en banc” review by the full 5th Circuit bench and, failing that, would petition the Supreme Court.  The 5th Circuit is a notably conservative bench, however, with only four of the fourteen active judges having been appointed by Democratic presidents.  The three-judge panel that issued this decision consisted entirely of Republican appointees.

Section 2 of the law identifies three “religious beliefs or moral convictions” and states that people who act in accord with those beliefs or convictions are protected from “discriminatory” action by the state, such as adverse tax rulings, benefit eligibility, employment decisions, imposition of fines or denial of occupational licenses.  The “religious beliefs or moral convictions” are as follows:  “(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; (b) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and (c) male (man) or female (woman) refers to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.”

The statute provides further that people who claim to have suffered some adverse action because they act on these beliefs have a right to sue state officials, and to use this law as a defense if they are sued by individuals.

Making its effect more concrete, the statute specifically protects religious organizations that want to discriminate against LGBTQ people in employment, housing, child placement, and marriages, and protects parents who decide to “raise their foster or adoptive children in accordance” with one of the three listed beliefs. Businesses that provide wedding services are protected against liability for denying such services to LGBTQ people, as are medical and mental health care providers, except for emergency medical situations.  For example, a health care provider cannot interfere with visitation with a patient by their designated representative (who may be a same-sex partner or spouse).  State agencies that license professionals may not refuse to license somebody because they hold or articulate one of the listed beliefs.

The statute also specifically protects “any entity that establishes sex-specific standards for facilities such as locker rooms or restrooms,” and protects state employees who want to voice their beliefs as listed in the statute.  It also specifically allows county clerks and judges to refuse to deal with same-sex couples seeking to marry, so long as arrangements are made to allow such marriages to take place without delay.

To sum up, the statute clearly sought to exempt religious organizations and individuals from having to treat LGBTQ people as equal with everybody else, providing “special rights” to discriminate against LGBTQ people and same-sex couples.  Ironically, because Mississippi law does nothing to protect the civil rights of LGBTQ people, many of the applications of this statute are more symbolic than real, at least as far as state law goes.  A Mississippi landlord incurs no state law penalty for refusing to rent a dwelling place to a same-sex couple, for example, and businesses in Mississippi are free to deny goods or services to people who are gay or transgender without incurring any state law penalty.  Few local governments in Mississippi have adopted laws that would be affected, although some educational institutions would clearly be affected, especially by the facilities access provision.

The problem for the plaintiffs, in the eyes of the court of appeals, was that the judges could not see that any of the plaintiffs have the kind of particularized injury to give them standing to sue the state in federal court when this law had not even begun to operate.  The plaintiffs had relied heavily on the argument that the law imposed a stigma, signaling second-class citizenship, and sought to enshrine by statute particular religious views, but the court rejected these arguments as insufficient.

The plaintiffs pointed to cases in which courts had ruled that plaintiffs offended by government-sponsored religious displays had been allowed to challenge them under the 1st Amendment in federal court, but Judge Jerry E. Smith, writing for the panel, rejected this analogy.  The court also rejected taxpayer standing, finding that H.B. 1523 did not authorize expenditures in support of religion.  The court found that by protecting both “religious beliefs and moral convictions,” the legislature had avoided privileging religion, since persons whose anti-gay beliefs were not religiously motivated would be protected from adverse government treatment under this act.  An atheist who believes same-sex marriage is wrong or that sex is immutable would be protected, even if these beliefs had no religious basis.

One plaintiff who based his standing on his intention to marry in the future was rejected by the court, which pointed out that he did not specify when or where he intended to marry.  “He does not allege that he was seeking wedding-related services from a business that would deny him or that he was seeking a marriage license or solemnization from a clerk or judge who would refuse to be involved in such a ceremony, or even that he intended to get married in Mississippi,” wrote Judge Smith.

The court made clear that if anybody actually suffers a concrete injury after the law goes into effect, they could file a new lawsuit and raise their challenge.

 

4th Circuit Judges Hail Gavin Grimm as a Civil Rights Leader

Posted on: April 10th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

A pair of federal appeals court judges have saluted Gavin Grimm, a transgender high school senior, as a civil rights leader in the struggle to establish equal rights for transgender people under the law.

On April 7, the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals granted a motion by the Gloucester County (Virginia) School District to vacate a preliminary injunction issued last summer by the U.S. District Court, which had ordered the school district to allow Grimm, a transgender boy, to use the boys’ restrooms at the high school during his senior year.  G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, 2017 WL 1291219.

That Order was quickly stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which then agreed to hear the school board’s appeal of the Order last fall. However, after the Trump Administration withdrew the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, to which the 4th Circuit had deferred in ordering the district court to issue the Order, the Supreme Court cancelled the scheduled oral argument and returned the case to the 4th Circuit.  Although the Order is now vacated, presumably the 4th Circuit still retains jurisdiction to decide whether the district court was correct in its decision to dismiss Gavin Grimm’s sex discrimination claim under Title IX in the absence of an administrative interpretation to which to defer, since it was Grimm’s appeal of the dismissal that brought the case to the 4th Circuit in the first place.

Although the court granted the school district’s unopposed motion to vacate the Order, a member of the panel, Senior Circuit Judge Andre M. Davis, was moved to write a short opinion reflecting on the case. Circuit Judge Henry M. Floyd directed that Davis’s opinion be published together with the 4th Circuit’s order, and Judge Paul V. Niemeyer, who had dissented from the 4th Circuit’s decision, agreed to the publication.

Davis’s eloquent brief opinion deserves to be read in full. Throughout the opinion, Grimm is referred to by his initials, as the case was filed on his behalf by his mother and stalwart champion in his struggle for equal rights, Deirdre Grimm.

DAVIS, Senior Circuit Judge, concurring:

G.G., then a fifteen-year-old transgender boy, addressed the Gloucester County School Board on November 11, 2014, to explain why he was not a danger to other students. He explained that he had used the boys’ bathroom in public places throughout Gloucester County and had never had a confrontation. He explained that he is a person worthy of dignity and privacy. He explained why it is humiliating to be segregated from the general population. He knew, intuitively, what the law has in recent decades acknowledged: the perpetuation of stereotypes is one of many forms of invidious discrimination. And so he hoped that his heartfelt explanation would help the powerful adults in his community come to understand what his adolescent peers already did. G.G. clearly and eloquently attested that he was not a predator, but a boy, despite the fact that he did not conform to some people’s idea about who is a boy.

Regrettably, a majority of the School Board was unpersuaded. And so we come to this moment. High school graduation looms and, by this court’s order vacating the preliminary injunction, G.G.’s banishment from the boys’ restroom becomes an enduring feature of his high school experience. Would that courtesies extended to others had been extended to G.G.

Our country has a long and ignominious history of discriminating against our most vulnerable and powerless. We have an equally long history, however, of brave individuals—Dred Scott, Fred Korematsu, Linda Brown, Mildred and Richard Loving, Edie Windsor, and Jim Obergefell, to name just a few—who refused to accept quietly the injustices that were perpetuated against them. It is unsurprising, of course, that the burden of confronting and remedying injustice falls on the shoulders of the oppressed. These individuals looked to the federal courts to vindicate their claims to human dignity, but as the names listed above make clear, the judiciary’s response has been decidedly mixed. Today, G.G. adds his name to the list of plaintiffs whose struggle for justice has been delayed and rebuffed; as Dr. King reminded us, however, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” G.G.’s journey is delayed but not finished.

G.G.’s case is about much more than bathrooms. It’s about a boy asking his school to treat him just like any other boy. It’s about protecting the rights of transgender people in public spaces and not forcing them to exist on the margins. It’s about governmental validation of the existence and experiences of transgender people, as well as the simple recognition of their humanity. His case is part of a larger movement that is redefining and broadening the scope of civil and human rights so that they extend to a vulnerable group that has traditionally been unrecognized, unrepresented, and unprotected.

G.G.’s plight has shown us the inequities that arise when the government organizes society by outdated constructs like biological sex and gender. Fortunately, the law eventually catches up to the lived facts of people; indeed, the record shows that the Commonwealth of Virginia has now recorded a birth certificate for G.G. that designates his sex as male.

G.G.’s lawsuit also has demonstrated that some entities will not protect the rights of others unless compelled to do so. Today, hatred, intolerance, and discrimination persist — and are sometimes even promoted — but by challenging unjust policies rooted in invidious discrimination, G.G. takes his place among other modern-day human rights leaders who strive to ensure that, one day, equality will prevail, and that the core dignity of every one of our brothers and sisters is respected by lawmakers and others who wield power over their lives.

G.G. is and will be famous, and justifiably so. But he is not “famous” in the hollowed-out Hollywood sense of the term. He is famous for the reasons celebrated by the renowned Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, in her extraordinary poem, Famous. Despite his youth and the formidable power of those arrayed against him at every stage of these proceedings, “[he] never forgot what [he] could do.”

Judge Floyd has authorized me to state that he joins in the views expressed herein.

S. Nye, “Famous”:

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence, which knew it would inherit the earth before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth, more famous than the dress shoe, which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men who smile while crossing streets, sticky children in grocery lines, famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.

Federal Court Awards Preliminary Restroom Access Relief to Transgender Students on Their Constitutional Claim

Posted on: February 28th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

Switching the focus from Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to the Equal Protection Clause of the federal Constitution, U.S. District Judge Mark R. Hornak of the Western District of Pennsylvania awarded a preliminary injunction on February 27 to three transgender high school students represented by Lambda Legal who are challenging a school board resolution that bars them from using sex-segregated restrooms that are consistent with their gender identities. Evancho v. Pine-Richland School District, Civil No. 2:16-01537.

Acknowledging the Trump Administration’s February 22 action withdrawing two letters sent by the U.S. Education Department during the Obama Administration on the subject of transgender restroom access under Title IX as well as the pending U.S. Supreme Court consideration of Gloucester County School Board v. G.G. (certiorari granted October 28, 2016), a Title IX claim by Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy from Virginia, against his school district, in which that Court granted the school district’s request to stay a preliminary injunction issued by the district court (see 136 S. Ct. 2442 (Aug. 3, 2016)), Judge Hornak wrote that he “cannot conclude that the path to relief sought by the Plaintiffs under Title IX is at the moment sufficiently clear that they have a reasonable likelihood of success on that claim.”  A “reasonable likelihood” finding is a prerequisite to issuing preliminary relief.

On the other hand, Hornak concluded that the plaintiffs did have such a path under the Equal Protection Clause and decided to blaze a new trail on this issue, in which prior courts have focused their attention almost exclusively on Title IX in line with the general preference of federal courts to rule based on statutes rather than resorting to constitutional rulings.

Hornak prefaced his constitutional analysis with a detailed set of factual findings and a sharp focus on the particular facts of this case, including that the three transgender students involved all began their transitions a few years ago and had been using restrooms consistent with their gender identities without any opposition from school administrators or any disturbance as early as the 2013-14 school year. In each case, they and their parents had met with school administrators, who had agreed to recognize and honor their gender identities in all respects.  Each of them has been living consistent with their gender identity for several years, although because of their ages only one of them has obtained a new birth certificate.  Administrators, teachers and fellow students have consistently used their preferred names and pronouns and treated them accordingly.  It wasn’t until a student mention the restroom use to her parents, who then contacted the school board together with other parents and turned it into an “issue,” that administrators even became aware that the transgender students were using the restrooms, since nobody had complained about it or made it an issue before then.  Ultimately the school board responded to noisy parental opposition at a series of public meetings, first rejecting a resolution allowing the transgender students to use the restrooms consistent with their gender identity by a tie vote, then adopting a contrary resolution by a slim margin.

The judge also pointed out that the boys’ and girls’ restrooms at the Pine-Richland high school were designed with individual privacy in mind, with dividers between the urinals in the boys’ rooms and privacy-protecting stalls with internal locks for the toilets in both rooms. Locker room access is not an issue at this point in the case, since all three plaintiffs have completed their physical education requirements and are not using the locker rooms.  The school also has established numerous single-user restrooms that are accessible to students.  The judge easily concluded, based on uncontested evidence that the restrictive Resolution was not necessary to protecting anybody’s privacy, thus rejecting one of the main justifications advanced by the school board.

Neither the Supreme Court nor the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over federal trial courts in Pennsylvania, has ruled on what standard of judicial review applies to government policies that discriminate because of gender identity. The school board argued that this means the court should use the least demanding standard, rationality review, to evaluate its policy.  Judge Hornak rejected that argument, saying, “First, that means that applying an Equal Protection standard other than rational basis in such a setting is not contrary to settled law, and second, when an issue is fairly and squarely presented to a District Court, that Court must address it. Dodging the question is not an option.”  He also observed that an earlier decision by another trial judge in his district involving a transgender student, Johnston v. University of Pittsburgh, 97 F. Supp. 3d 557 (W.D. Pa. 2015), was not binding on him, and he found that case distinguishable on the facts and the law, not least because of the extended period in this case during which the plaintiffs used restrooms without incident and had full recognition of their gender identity by the school administration and staff.

Reviewing the various criteria that the Supreme Court has discussed in cases about the appropriate level of equal protection review, Hornak concluded that the “intermediate standard” used in sex discrimination cases should apply in this case. “The record before the Court reflects that transgender people as a class have historically been subject to discrimination or differentiation; that they have a defining characteristic that frequently bears no relation to an ability to perform or contribute to society; that as a class they exhibit immutable or distinguishing characteristics that define them as a discrete group; and that as a class, they are a minority with relatively little political power.”  Focusing on this particular case, he wrote, “As to these Plaintiffs, their transgender characteristics are inherent in who they are as people, which is not factually contested by the District.  As to these Plaintiffs, and more generally as to transgender individuals as a class, that characteristic bears no relationship to their ability to contribute to our society.  More precisely, the record reveals that the Plaintiffs are in all respects productive, engaged, contributing members of the student body at the High School.  Thus, all of the indicia for the application of the heightened intermediate scrutiny standard are present there.”

That means that the defendants have the burden to justify their discriminatory policy, and the judge concluded they were likely to fall short in that. “Specifically, what is missing from the record here are facts that demonstrate the ‘exceedingly persuasive justification” for the enforcement of Resolution 2 as to restroom use by these Plaintiffs that is substantially related to an important governmental interest,” wrote Hornak.  The Resolution was not shown to be “necessary to quell any actual or incipient threat, disturbance or other disruption of school activity by the Plaintiffs,” he found, and there was no evidence that it was necessary to “address any such threat or disturbance by anyone else in the High School restrooms.” Furthermore, it did not address any privacy concern “that is not already well addressed by the physical layout of the bathrooms,” he found, continuing, “it would appear to the Court that anyone using the toilets or  urinals at the High School is afforded actual physical privacy from others viewing their external sex organs and excretory functions.  Conversely, others in the restrooms are shielded from such views.”  And the school’s existing code of conduct as well as state laws already exist to deal with any “unlawful malicious ‘peeping Tom’ activity by anyone pretending to be transgender,” he wrote, dismissing a concern raised by the defendants as a hypothetical justification for the policy.

The school board argued that some parents had threatened to withdraw their students from school if the Board did not keep transgender students out of the restrooms, but the court was not willing to countenance this as a justification for the policy. “If adopting and implementing a school policy or practice based on those individual determinations or preferences of parents – no matter how sincerely held – runs counter to the legal obligations of the District,” he wrote, “then the District’s and the Board’s legal obligations must prevail. Those obligations to the law take precedence over responding to constituent desires,” because the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause “is neither applied nor construed by popular vote.”

Furthermore, rejecting the Board’s argument that enjoining the Resolution while the case proceeds was an improper change of the “status quo,” the court found that for several years the plaintiffs freely using the restrooms consistent with their gender identity was the “status quo,” even if school officials claimed they were unaware of it. This was a “persistently-applied custom or practice” which had the same weight as a written policy and, of course, until the Resolution was adopted, the District had no written policy on this issue.  The court rejected the defendants’ argument that the availability of single-user restrooms “sprinkled around the High School” provided a sufficient “safety valve” for the plaintiffs, making an injunction unnecessary.  “Given that settled precedent provides that impermissible distinctions by official edict cause tangible Constitutional harm,” he wrote, “the law does not impose on the Plaintiffs the obligation to use single-user facilities in order to ‘solve the problem.’” He found that this was “no answer under the Equal Protection Clause that those impermissibly singled out for different treatment can, and therefore must, themselves ‘solve the problem’ by further separating themselves from their peers.”

He easily concluded that the differential treatment inflicted irreparable harm on the plaintiffs, and that ordering the District to allow them to use gender-appropriate restrooms would “cause relatively little ‘harm’ in the preliminary injunction sense – if any harm at all – to the District and the High School community.” It was crucial to this conclusion, of course, that the plaintiffs had been using the restrooms without incident for years until some parents made an issue out of it.  He also found that issuing the injunction would serve the public interest by vindicating the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs.

In case a second-guessing court of appeals should disagree with his determination that heightened scrutiny applied to this case, Judge Hornak also stated that the Resolution probably would not even survive rationality review, since he found that it was not necessary to achieve any of the goals suggested by the defendants.

Judge Hornak’s decision not to grant the injunction based on Title IX seems prudent in light of the unsettled situation he describes. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the Gavin Grimm case depended on deference to the Obama Administration’s interpretation of the Education Department’s bathroom regulation.  With that interpretation being “withdrawn” by the Trump Administration in a letter that did not substitute any new interpretation in its place, there is nothing to defer to and the construction of the statute and regulation is now pending before the Supreme Court, which voted 5-3 last summer to stay the district court’s preliminary injunction in the Grimm case.  Hornak noted that the criteria for the Supreme Court issuing a stay in a case like that include the Court’s judgment that the case presents a serious possibility of being reversed by the Court on the merits.  What he omits to mention is that the stay was issued only because Justice Stephen Breyer, who would in other circumstances have likely voted against granting the stay, released an explanation that he was voting for the stay as a “courtesy” to the four more conservative justices, undoubtedly because they had the four votes to grant a petition to review the 4th Circuit’s ruling.  Under the Supreme Court’s procedures, five votes are needed to take an action, such as issuing a stay or reversing a lower court ruling, but only four votes are needed to grant a petition to review a lower court decision.  It was clear in that case that the Gloucester County School Board would be filing a petition for review and that there were four justices ready to grant it.  Judge Hornak interpreted that, as Justice Breyer clearly did, as a signal that the interpretation of Title IX in this context is up for grabs.  If Neil Gorsuch is confirmed by the Senate in time to participate in deciding that case, the outcome will probably turn on Justice Anthony Kennedy, who voted for the stay.  (Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan announced that they would have denied the stay.)

Judge Hornak’s ruling confirms that for the overwhelming majority of educational institutions subject to Title IX because they receive federal funds, it does not really matter whether Title IX requires them to afford gender-consistent restroom access to transgender students (or staff, for that matter), because as government-operated institutions they are bound to respect the Equal Protection rights of their students and employees. However, for non-governmental educational institutions that receive federal funds, either through work-study programs, loan assistance, or research grants in the case of the major private universities, their federal obligations towards transgender students depend on Title IX and whatever state or local laws might apply to them as places of public accommodation, which vary from state to state, only a minority of states and localities protecting transgender people from discrimination.

In light of the lack of 3rd Circuit appellate precedent on the constitutional issue, it would not be surprising if the defendants seek a stay of this injunction from the court of appeals, and there is no predicting how that court would rule, although the likelihood that the Supreme Court will issue a ruling of some sort in the Grimm case by the end of June might lead them to err on the side of caution to give the school district temporary relief.

Lambda Legal’s attorneys representing the plaintiffs are Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, Christopher Clark and Kara Ingelhart, who are joined by local counsel in Pennsylvania, Tracie Palmer and David C. Williams of Kline & Specter, P.C..

Supreme Court Will Hear Title IX Transgender Discrimination Case and Case Challenging Social Media Restrictions on Sex Offenders

Posted on: October 30th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

Supreme Court Will Hear Title IX Transgender Discrimination Case and Case Challenging Social Media Restrictions on Sex Offenders

The Supreme Court substantially enlivened its docket for the October 2016 Term on October 28 when it granted petitions for certiorari in Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., No. 16-273, and Packingham v. North Carolina, No. 15-1194.  In Gloucester, a school district in Virginia, obligated not to discriminate because of sex under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, seeks review of the 4th Circuit’s decision, 822 F.3d 709 (2016), holding that the district court should defer to the U.S. Department of Education’s interpretation of a regulation on restrooms in educational facilities, 34 C.F.R. Sec. 106.33, that would require the school to let a transgender boy use the boys’ restroom facilities at his high school.  In Packingham, the petitioner seeks to overturn the North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision, 368 N.C. 380, 777 S.E.2d 738 (2015), upholding his conviction for violating North Carolina’s rules governing registered sex offenders by posting a message on Facebook.com celebrating the dismissal of a traffic ticket.  Lester Packingham claims that the broad prohibition of his use of social media violates his 1st Amendment rights.

The Gloucester Case

The Gloucester case was closely watched by LGBT lawyers and legal commentators for presenting the Court with a vehicle to respond to the broader question of whether federal laws prohibiting discrimination “because of sex,” mostly passed many decades ago, can now be construed to forbid gender identity discrimination (and maybe, also, sexual orientation discrimination), despite the obvious lack of intent by the enacting legislators in the 1960s and 1970s to reach such discrimination.  That is, to recur to a question repeatedly raised by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, are we governed by the intentions of our legislators or by reasonable interpretations of the actual texts they adopted in their statutes, or that administrative agencies subsequently adopted in regulations intended to aid in the enforcement of the statutes?  Scalia, who was an ardent foe of using “legislative history” as a method of statutory interpretation, decisively argued that courts should focus on the language of the statute, not viewed in isolation of course but rather in the context of the overall statute (including any declaration of congressional purpose contained in it), and he won unanimous concurrence by his colleagues in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998), holding that a man employed in an all-male workplace could maintain an action for hostile environment sexual harassment under Title VII, even though it was unlikely that the enacting Congress in 1964 was thinking about same-sex harassment when it amended Title VII to add “sex” to the list of forbidden grounds for workplace discrimination.  Scalia wrote for the Court that we are governed by the statutory text, and thus Mr. Oncale could maintain his Title VII suit subject to his burden to prove that he was harassed “because of sex” as specified by the statute.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has prominently cited and quoted from Justice Scalia’s Oncale opinion in its federal employment rulings of recent years (Macy, Lusardi, Baldwin) holding that discrimination because of gender identity or sexual orientation is “necessarily” discrimination “because of sex,” even though the 1964 Congress would not necessarily have thought so.  Although Gloucester does not directly involve Title VII, federal courts have generally followed Title VII precedents when they interpret the sex discrimination ban in Title IX, as the 4th Circuit explained in this case.

The controversy arose when fellow students and their parents objected to Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy, using the boys’ restrooms during fall term of his sophomore year, in 2014. The principal of the high school had given Grimm permission to use the boys’ restrooms, after being presented with the facts about Grimm’s transition and his discomfort with continuing to use the girls’ restrooms, since he was dressing, grooming, and – most significantly – strongly identifying as male.  Responding to the complaints, the Gloucester County School Board voted to establish a policy under which students were required to use the restroom consistent with their “biological sex” – the sex identified on their birth certificate – or to use a gender-neutral restroom, of which there were a few in the high school.  Grimm was dissatisfied with this turn of events and enlisted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia to sue the school board in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, in Newport News.  The case was assigned to Senior U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar, who was appointed to the district court by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.  The plaintiff was identified in the original complaint as “G.G., by his next friend and mother, Deirdre Grimm,” but Gavin Grimm decided early on to be open about his role as plaintiff and has spoken publicly about the case.  The complaint relied on Title IX as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Ruling on a motion for a preliminary injunction by the plaintiff and a motion to dismiss by the defendants on September 17, 2015, 132 F. Supp. 3d 736, Judge Doumar found that Grimm could not win a ruling on the merits of his Title IX claim because, in the judge’s view, Title IX regulations expressly allowed schools to maintain separate restroom facilities for boys and girls based on “sex,” and so it was not unlawful for them to require Grimm to use restrooms consistent with his “sex” which, in the school district’s view, was female. He rejected the ACLU’s claim that he should defer to the U.S. Department of Education’s interpretation of the “bathroom regulation,” which was articulated in a letter that the Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) sent in January 2015 as a “party in interest” in response to Grimm’s request for the Department’s assistance in his case.  OCR took the position, consistent with recent developments in sex discrimination law, that Grimm should be treated as a boy under the circumstances because it was undisputed that this was his gender identity, and thus under the regulation he was entitled to use the boy’s restroom, although he could also request as an accommodation to have access to gender-neutral facilities.   To Judge Doumar, the text of the regulation was clear and unambiguous, so the OCR’s attempt to ‘interpret’ the regulation in favor of Grimm’s claim was not entitled to deference from the court.  He wrote that deferring to the position articulated in the letter would allow OCR to “create a de facto new regulation.”   Doumar opined that if OCR wanted to change the regulation, it should go through the procedures set out in the Administrative Procedure Act, a time-consuming process that would result in a new or amended regulation that would then be subject to direct judicial review in the court of appeals.  As to the facts, Doumar referred to Grimm in his opinion as a “natal female” and seemingly was unwilling to credit the idea that for purposes of the law Grimm should be treated as a boy.  To Doumar, the case presented the simple question whether the school district had to let a girl use the boy’s restroom, and under the “clear” regulation the answer to that question was “No.”  While denying the preliminary injunction and dismissing the Title IX claim, Judge Doumar reserved judgment on the Equal Protection Claim.

Grimm appealed to the 4th Circuit, which reversed Judge Doumar in a 2-1 opinion on April 19, 2016.  Where Doumar saw clarity in the regulation, the 4th Circuit majority saw ambiguity, although a dissenting judge sided with Judge Doumar.  Although the regulation clearly said that schools could maintain separate restroom facilities for males and females, it said nothing directly about which restrooms transgender students could use, thus creating the ambiguity.  Unlike Judge Doumar, the 4th Circuit majority was unwilling to accept the School Board’s argument that a person’s sex is definitely established by their birth certificate.  The court took note of the developing case law in other circuits and in many district courts accepting the proposition that sex discrimination laws are concerned not just with genetic or “biological” sex but rather with the range of factors and characteristics that go into gender, including gender identity and expression.  Many federal courts (including several on the appellate level) have come to accept the proposition that gender identity and sex are inextricably related, that gender dysphoria and transgender identity are real phenomena that deeply affect the identity of people, and that transgender people are entitled to be treated consistent with their gender identity.  The court mentioned, in addition to the OCR letter, a December 2014 OCR publication setting forth the same view, which had been published on the Department of Education’s website.  Thus, the School District’s questioning of deference to an “unpublished letter” was not entirely factual, as the Department had previously published its interpretation on its website, and it was relying on an earlier ruling under Title VII by the EEOC in the Macy employment discrimination case, which was issued in 2012.

Having found that the regulation was ambiguous as to the issue before the court, the 4th Circuit relied on Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997), a Supreme Court decision holding that an agency’s interpretation of its own ambiguous regulation should be given controlling weight by the court unless the interpretation is “plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation or statute.”  In other words, a reasonable agency interpretation of an ambiguous regulation should be deferred to by the court.  The 4th Circuit panel majority went on to find that the requirements of Auer were met in this case, and remanded the matter to Judge Doumar to reconsider his ruling.  The court’s discussion made clear what direction the reconsideration should take and stressed urgency. Judge Doumar reacted with alacrity, issuing the requested preliminary injunction on June 23.  The School Board sought a stay, which was denied by both Judge Doumar and the 4th Circuit, which also denied a petition for rehearing en banc. With the new school year looming, and desperate to avoid having to let Grimm use the boys’ restrooms during his final year of high school, the School Board petitioned the Supreme Court for a stay of the preliminary injunction, which was granted on August 3 by a vote of 5-3.  See 136 S. Ct. 2442.  Justice Stephen Breyer, taking the unusual step of issuing a brief statement explaining why he had voted for the stay along with the four more conservative members of the Court; said it was an “accommodation.”  There was speculation at the time about what that meant.  In light of the October 28 vote to grant the School District’s petition for certiorari, it probably meant that the four conservatives had indicated they would likely vote to grant a petition for certiorari to review the 4th Circuit’s decision, so in Breyer’s view it made sense to delay implementing the injunction and to preserve the status quo, as the case would eventually be placed on the Court’s active docket for the October 2016 Term (which runs through June 2017).  Breyer was careful to refrain from expressing any view about the merits in his brief statement.  After the School Board filed its petition for certiorari on August 29, the case generated considerable interest, attracting more than a dozen amicus briefs in support or opposition to the petition, including briefs from many states and from members of Congress.  There will undoubtedly be heavy media interest when the parties file their merits briefs with the Court, accompanied by numerous amicus briefs on both sides of the case.

The School Board’s petition to the Court posed three questions, first asking whether the %Auer% doctrine, which some of the Justices have signaled a desire to overrule, should be reconsidered; second asking whether under the Auer doctrine “an unpublished agency letter that, among other things, does not carry the force of law and was adopted in the context of the very dispute in which deference is sought” merits deference; and third asking whether the Department’s interpretation of Title IX and the bathroom regulation should be “given effect”?  The Court granted the petition only as to the second and third questions, so there are not four members of the Court ready to reconsider Auer, at least in the context of this case.

The remaining questions give the Court different paths to a decision, one of which has minimal substantive doctrinal significance, while others could make this a landmark ruling on the possible application of federal sex discrimination statutes and regulations to discrimination claims by sexual minorities.

The Court might agree with the School Board that no deference is due to an agency position formulated in response to a particular case and expressed in an unpublished agency letter. This could result in a remand to the 4th Circuit for a new determination of whether Judge Doumar’s dismissal of the Title IX claim was correct in the absence of any need to defer to the agency’s interpretation, a question as to which the 4th Circuit majority has already signaled an answer in its discussion of the merits.

Alternatively, and more efficiently in terms of the development of the law, the Court could take on the substantive issue and decide, at the least, whether interpreting Title IX to extend to gender identity discrimination claims is a viable interpretation, in light of the Court’s seminal ruling in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), that an employer’s use of sex stereotypes to the disadvantage of an employee’s promotion application was evidence of intentional discrimination because of sex.  It was that ruling that eventually led federal courts to conclude that because transgender people generally do not conform to sex stereotypes concerning their “biological” sex as determined at birth, discrimination against them is a form of “sex discrimination” in violation of such federal laws as the Fair Credit Act, the Violence Against Women Act, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  The EEOC also relied on Price Waterhouse in reaching its conclusion that transgender plaintiffs could assert discrimination claims under Title VII, and the 6th and 11th Circuits have relied on it in finding that claims of gender identity discrimination by public employees should be treated the same as sex discrimination claims under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

Were the Supreme Court to rule by majority vote that laws banning discrimination “because of sex” also “necessarily” cover discrimination because of gender identity, rather than issuing a narrower ruling focusing solely on Title IX, one could plausibly assert that the inclusion of “gender identity” in the pending Equality Act bill would not be, strictly speaking, necessary in order to establish a federal policy against gender identity discrimination under all federal sex discrimination laws. But it is possible that the Court might write a more narrowly focused decision that would in some way be logically restricted to Title IX claims. At least one district court, in a case involving a transgender student at the University of Pittsburgh, suggested that there were significant enough differences between workplaces and educational institutions to merit a different approach under Title VII and Title IX, especially noting that many of the students affected by Title IX are not adults, while most people affected by Title VII are older, more experienced, and less susceptible to psychological injury in the realm of sexual development.  There was the suggestion that sexual privacy concerns in the context of an educational institution are different from such concerns in the context of an adult workplace.  The Supreme Court has generally preferred to decide statutory interpretation cases on narrow grounds, so it is possible that a merits decision in this case would not necessarily decide how other sex discrimination laws should be construed.

This case will most likely be argued early in 2017, and it may not be decided until the end of the Court’s term in June. Thus, it is possible that Gavin Grimm could win but never personally benefit as a student at Gloucester County’s high school, since he may have completed his studies before the final decision is issued.  But, of course, if he goes on to college, a winning decision would personally benefit him in being able to use men’s restrooms if he attends a college subject to Title IX – unless, given another complication of our times, he decides to attend a religious school that raises theological objections to letting him use such facilities and seeks to rely on the Hobby Lobby decision to avoid complying with Title IX.  We suspect, however, that his higher education would likely avoid that complication!

The Supreme Court has not granted as many petitions as usual thus far this fall, leading to speculation that it is trying to avoid granting review in cases where the justices might be predictably split evenly on the outcome and thus would not be able to render a precedential decision. If the Senate Republicans stand firm on their position that President Obama’s nominee for the vacant seat, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland, will not be considered for confirmation, it is possible that the Court will have only eight justices when the Gloucester case is argued.  A tie vote by the Court would leave the 4th Circuit’s decision in place, but it would not be precedential outside of the 4th Circuit.  If a newly-elected president nominates a new candidate and the confirmation process takes the average time of several months, a new justice would probably not be seated in time to participate in deciding this case, unless the Court voted to hold it over for re-argument.  (In the past, the Court has sometimes held new arguments in cases that were heard when the Court was shorthanded.  This happened once when Justice Lewis Powell missed many arguments due to ill health, and his colleagues left it up to him whether to participate in those cases, in some instances by holding new arguments.)  This raises the possibility that Grimm’s graduation from high school might be found to have mooted the case, resulting in a dismissal on jurisdictional grounds.  This wouldn’t be an issue, of course, had the lawsuit been filed by DOE and the Justice Department, but where the plaintiff is an individual, his standing remains an issue throughout consideration of the case.

The Packingham Case

In the Packingham case, the North Carolina Supreme Court, reversing a decision by the state’s court of appeals, held that a state law restricting certain on-line social media use by all registered sex offenders was neither facially unconstitutional nor unconstitutional as applied to the defendant, Lester Gerard Packingham.  The North Carolina court, which divided 5-2 on the case, concluded that the statute was a regulation of conduct that incidentally affects freedom of speech, thus subject to heightened but not strict scrutiny, and that it survived such review due to the state’s important interest in protecting minors from sexual exploitation and to the measures taken by the legislature to narrow the scope of on-line communications that would be affected.

Packingham was convicted in 2002 of a sexual offense involving a minor. The opinion for the Supreme Court by Justice Robert H. Edmunds, Jr., does not specify the nature of the offense, but a reference in the dissenting opinion suggests it did not involve violence.  He did, however, have to register as a sex offender.  In 2008, the state legislature amended the sex offender registration law to make it a crime for a registered sex offender to “access a commercial social networking Web site where the sex offender knows that the site permits minor children to become members or to create or maintain personal Web pages on the commercial social networking Web site.”  The statute included a detailed definition of the characteristics of the kinds of sites that would be prohibited, and explicitly exempted various kinds of websites.  In effect, the ban is on sites where a registered sex offender might be able to identify and communicate directly with minors.  Sites that require individuals to be at least 18 years old in order to be members would not be affected by the ban, for example, and those that limited their services to things like commercial transactions for selling goods were also exempted.  After the law was passed, a written notice was sent to all registered sex offenders in the state advising of these new restrictions to which they must comply.  There was evidence in this case that Packingham received the notice.

In 2010 a Durham police officer began an investigation to determine whether any local registered sex offenders were violating the new law. His investigation uncovered the fact that Packingham was maintaining a facebook.com page under an assumed name and had posted messages to it, most recently a message celebrating his escape from traffic ticket liability.  The investigation did not, apparently, uncover any communications by Packingham to minors using facebook.com.  Packingham was indicted for violating the statute, and moved to dismiss the charges on 1st Amendment grounds.  The trial judge denied the motion, finding the statute constitutional as applied to Packingham while declining to rule on Packingham’s facial challenge to the statute, and he was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 6-8 months, suspended for a year while on probation.  Packingham appealed.  The court of appeals reversed, finding that the statute was unconstitutional on its face and as applied, too broadly sweeping in its effect on the free speech rights of registered sex offenders, and unduly vague.

The North Carolina Supreme Court totally rejected the court of appeals’ analysis. For one thing, the court found that the statute regulated conduct (the act of accessing the social media), not directly speech, although it clearly has an incidental effect on the ability of a sex offender to engage in speech activities using social media.  But the court decided that under the “heightened scrutiny” approach for evaluating regulations of conduct that incidentally affect speech, this statute survived because of the important state interest in protecting children, and the legislature’s care in tailoring the prohibition to focus on the kinds of social media where those so inclined could identify and communicate with minors.  The court concluded that this left open a wide variety of social media and other internet forums in which sex offenders were free to participate, and that the statute (and the notices to sex offenders) were written in such a way that somebody who sought to comply with the statute could determine which social media were off-limits.  Nobody disputed that accessing facebook.com was prohibited under this law, for example, and the court concluded that Packingham knew that facebook.com was off-limits for him, as reflected by his opening an account in an assumed name.  (What gave him away was that his photograph on the site matched the photographic depiction on his sex offender registration form.)  The court acknowledged that several similar laws in other states had been declared unconstitutionally, but sought to distinguish them as not being as fine-tuned as the North Carolina law in terms of the kinds of websites that were made off-limits.

The dissent was written by Justice Robin E. Hudson, joined by Justice Cheri Beasley. She disputed the majority’s conclusion that this was a regulation of conduct, but she determined that didn’t make much difference because she concluded that even under the standard of review used by the majority, the statute failed as overly broad and vague.  Restricting all sex offenders without regard to the nature of their offenses, for example, undercut the state’s justification of protecting minors.  Many people are required to register who committed offenses that do not involve minors, and who have no sexual interest in minors. Why, then, is the state restricting their 1st Amendment activities if its articulated justification for the restriction is to protect minors?  She also pointed out that there is no requirement that their offense leading to registration status involved using a computer, so why is their computer access being restricted?  Further, she contested the majority’s conclusion about how narrowly tailored the restriction is.  She pointed out that, literally applied, it could bar somebody from using amazon.com, because that website makes it possible for users to create profile pages including contact information facilitating communications between users with common interests.  Indeed, she pointed out that some websites allow minors to register with the approval of their parents.  One such is the largest circulation daily newspaper in North Carolina, so theoretically Packingham could be barred from accessing the newspaper on-line.  She argued that the law is both facially unconstitutional and unconstitutional as applied to Packingham.

In petitioning the Supreme Court for review, Packingham’s counsel wrote: “The statute singles out a subclass of persons, who are subject to criminal punishment based on expressive, associational, and communicative activities at the heart of the First Amendment, without any requirement that their activity caused any harm or was intended to.” The certiorari grant extends to the questions of whether the law is facially unconstitutional or just unconstitutional as applied to Packingham.  The case has the potential to bring into question numerous state laws that seek to regulate the expressive activities of sex offenders in the name of protecting minors.  Nobody argues that the state does not have a significant interest in protecting minors from sexual exploitation, or that the internet has created new opportunities for adults who are sexually interested in minors to locate and communicate with them.  At issue is how broadly such laws may sweep.  Should the laws pay more attention to the nature of sex offenses leading to registration in deciding whose activities should be restricted, and how narrowly tailored must the restrictions be to avoid subjecting individuals to long-term (even life-long in some cases) restrictions on their ability to use one of the main vehicles for communication in the 21st century without substantial justification for the limitation.  The petition was supported by an amicus brief from professors concerned with the law’s substantial burden they perceived on communicative freedom imposed by the statute.  Interestingly, N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper did not want to bother responding to the certiorari petition, and filed a waiver of the right to respond on April 6, but then was requested to respond after the amicus brief was filed, and ultimately filed a response on June 30.

The interests of LGBT people are significantly implicated by this dispute. Even after the Supreme Court declared in 2003 that laws against gay sex were not enforceable against individuals engaged in private, adult consensual activities, there is a not inconsiderable number of gay people, especially men, who are still affected by sex registration requirements in many states based on pre-2003 criminal convictions and continuing enforcement of laws involving solicitation, conduct in public, prostitution, and, of course, intergenerational sex.  Many offender registration laws sweep broadly encompassing a wide variety of activity that is not specifically protected under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas ruling, and litigation is ongoing challenging the continued registration requirements imposed in some jurisdictions on people whose offender status is based on pre-Lawrence convictions for conduct that may no longer be criminalized.  In this connection it is notable that there are still several states that have not legislatively reformed their sex crimes laws to comply with the Lawrence ruling, as a result of which law enforcement officials continue to make arrests for constitutionally protected conduct.

 

Two Federal Judges Order Public Schools to Let Transgender Students Use Gender-Appropriate Restrooms

Posted on: September 27th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

Within days of each other, two federal district judges have issued preliminary injunctions requiring public schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms consistent with the students’ gender identity. U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley of the Southern District of Ohio, based in Cincinnati, issued his order on September 26 against the Highland Local School District on behalf of a “Jane Doe” 11-year-old elementary school student, in Board of Education v. U.S. Department of Education, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131474, 2016 WL 5239829.   U.S. District Judge Pamela Pepper of the Milwaukee-based Eastern District of Wisconsin, issued her order on September 22 against the Kenosha Unified School District on behalf of Ashton Whitaker, a high school student, in Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District No. 1, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 129678, 2016 WL 5372349.  Jane Doe is a transgender girl, Ashton Whitaker a transgender boy.

Although both cases are important, producing essentially the same results under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, Judge Marbley’s ruling is more significant because the judge sharply questioned the jurisdictional basis for a nationwide injunction issued on August 21 by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor of the Northern District of Texas, Wichita Falls, which ordered the Obama Administration to refrain from initiating investigations or enforcement of violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 based on gender identity discrimination.  O’Connor was ruling in a case initiated by Texas in alliance with many other states challenging the validity of the Obama Administration’s “rule” that Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal funds, prohibits gender identity discrimination and requires schools to allow transgender students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity.

Neither the Highland nor Kenosha cases were affected by O’Connor’s order in any event, since these cases were already under way before O’Connor issued his order and they involved district court complaints filed by the individual plaintiffs, not by the Department of Education.

The Doe v. Highland case before Judge Marbley is in part a clone of the Texas case pending before O’Connor. When a dispute arose about the school’s refusal to allow a transgender girl to use the girls’ restrooms and the Department of Education became involved in response to a complaint by the girl’s parents, the school district, abetted by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the “Christian” law firm that is also providing representation to other challengers of the Administration’s position, rushed into federal district court to sue the Department of Education and seek injunctive relief.

As the case progressed, Jane Doe’s parents moved on her behalf to intervene as third-party plaintiffs against the school district. ADF pulled in many of the states that are co-plaintiffs in the Texas case and a clone case brought in federal district court in Nebraska, and moved to make them amicus parties in this case.  At the same time, pro bono attorneys from Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, a large firm based in Washington, D.C., together with local counsel from Columbus, Ohio, organized an amicus brief by school administrators from about twenty states in support of Jane Doe.  After being allowed to intervene as a plaintiff, Doe moved for a preliminary injunction to require the Highland Schools to treat her as a girl and allow her to use appropriate restrooms.

Judge Marbley first confronted the federal government’s argument that the court did not have jurisdiction over the Highland school district’s attack on the Administration’s interpretation of Title IX. Unlike Judge O’Connor in Texas, Judge Marbley concluded that the government was correct.  If a school district wants to attack the government’s interpretation of Title IX, he found, it must do so in the context of appealing an adverse decision by the Department of Education ordering it to comply with the interpretation or risk losing federal funding.  Marbley pointed out that under the administrative process for enforcement of Title IX, no school would lose funding before a final ruling on the merits is rendered, a process that would involve administrative appeals within the Department followed by an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals with a potential for Supreme Court review of a final ruling by the court.  Thus, the school district had no due process argument that it stood to lose funding without being able to seek judicial relief if it were deprived of the ability to sue directly in the district court.  Marbley found that there was no authorization under the statute or the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) for a school district to file a lawsuit directly in federal district court challenging an interpretation of Title IX.

Part of ADF’s argument in its lawsuits challenging the Obama Administration’s guidance to the school districts is that by not embodying this interpretation in a formal regulation, the Administration had improperly evaded judicial review, since the APA authorizes challenges to new regulations to be filed promptly in federal courts of appeals after final publication of the regulation in the Federal Register. ADF argued that the Guidance was, in effect, a regulation masquerading as a mere “interpretation.”  Judge O’Connor bought the argument, but Judge Marbley did not.

Marbley was dismissive of Judge O’Connor’s determination that he had jurisdiction to hear the Texas case. “The Texas court’s analysis can charitably be described as cursory,” he wrote, “as there is undoubtedly a profound difference between a discrimination victim’s right to sue in federal district court under Title IX and a school district’s right to challenge an agency interpretation in federal district court.  This Court cannot assume that the first right implies the second.”  Marbley went on to discuss in detail Supreme Court rulings on the question whether there was a private right of action under various federal statutes that did not expressly authorize lawsuits in the district courts, and the circumstances under which such authorization can be found by implication, as the courts have done to allow students to file Title IX lawsuits.  Marbley rejected the Highland school district’s argument that once Jane Doe had intervened, she would provide a basis for the court to assert jurisdiction over the school district’s claim.  Actually, he pointed out, the school district could raise its arguments against the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX in response to Jane Doe’s lawsuit, and need not maintain a lawsuit of its own.  Thus, he concluded, the school district’s complaint should be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.

In both cases, the attorneys for the transgender students argued alternatively under Title IX and under the Equal Protection Clause. In both cases, they argued that because gender identity discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, the Equal Protection analysis should receive the same “heightened scrutiny” that courts apply to sex discrimination claims, which throws the burden on the government to show that it has an exceedingly important interest that is substantially advanced by the challenged policy.

Here the cases diverged slightly in the judges’ legal analysis. Both judges found that the transgender plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their claims under both Title IX and the Equal Protection clause, that they were suffering harm as a result of the challenged policies, and that any harm the school districts would suffer by issuance of preliminary injunctions was outweighed by the plaintiffs’ harm if injunctions were denied.  In addition, both judges found that the injunctions were in the public interest.  But Judge Marbley additionally found that heightened scrutiny applied, while Judge Pepper, more conservatively, reached her conclusion by applying the rational basis test.  In either case, however, the judges found that the school districts’ justifications for their exclusionary policies lacked sufficient merit to forestall preliminary relief against them.

Significantly, Judge Marbley’s conclusion that heightened scrutiny applied to this case drew support from the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges.  He used Obergefell to question the continuing relevance of prior court of appeals analyses of equal protection “in light of Obergefell’s emphasis on the immutability of sexual orientation and the long history of anti-gay discrimination. Like the district courts that examined suspect classification based on sexual orientation,” he continued, “this Court will proceed to conduct its own analysis of the four-factor test to determine whether heightened scrutiny applies to a transgender plaintiff’s claim under the Equal Protection Clause.”  Marbley based his analysis of the four-factor test on a district court ruling last year in New York, Adkins v. City of New York, which found all factors to be satisfied to justify heightened scrutiny, including a finding that “transgender people have ‘immutable and distinguishing characteristics that define them as a distinct group” for purposes of analyzing their equal protection claims.

Significantly, both judges accorded great weight to the Obama Administration’s Guidance, and both judges also found persuasive the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in the Gavin Grimm case that district courts should defer to the Administration’s interpretation due to the ambiguity of existing regulations about how to deal with transgender students under Title IX.  In light of such ambiguity, the federal administrators would enjoy deference so long as they adopted an interpretation of the statute and regulations that is not inconsistent with the purpose of the statute.  The judges rejected the argument that because Congress in 1972 did not intend to ban gender identity discrimination, administrators and judges decades later could not adopt such an interpretation of “discrimination because of sex.”

Although the Supreme Court has stayed the injunction issued by the district court in the Gavin Grimm case while the Gloucester (Virginia) school district’s petition for review of the 4th Circuit’s ruling is pending before the Supreme Court, Judge Marbley pointed out that the stay does not affect the status of the 4th Circuit’s decision as a persuasive precedent.  He also pointed out the unusual step taken by the Justice Stephen Breyer of writing that he had agreed to provide the necessary fifth vote for a stay to “preserve the status quo” as a “courtesy” to the four conservative justices.  The Highland school district argued that the stay “telegraphed” that the Supreme Court was going to grant review of the 4th Circuit’s decision, but, wrote Marbley, “even if Highland has somehow been able to divine what the Supreme Court has ‘telegraphed’ by staying the mandate in that case, this Court unfortunately lacks such powers of divination.”  Furthermore, he wrote, “This Court follows statements of law from the Supreme Court, not whispers on the pond.”

Judge Marbley also accorded great weight to the amicus brief filed on behalf of school administrators from around the country. In this brief, they explained how they had implemented the policies required by the Education Department to accommodate transgender students.  They pointed out that allowing transgender students to use appropriate facilities had not created any real problems.  They argued that this was a necessary step for the mental and physical health of transgender students, and did not really impair the privacy of other students.  Furthermore, in the more than twenty school districts joining in this brief, the new policy had not in any case led to an incident of a sexual predator gaining access to a restroom under the pretext of the policy and harming any student.  Thus, while acknowledging that school districts can be legitimately concerned about the health and safety of students, the courts could conclude that any such risk was conjectural and not borne out by experience.

The judges also noted other district court decisions over the past year ordering schools to allow transgender students to use appropriate facilities, including a recent ruling in one of the North Carolina cases, requiring the University of North Carolina to ignore H.B.2, that state’s infamous “bathroom bill,” and allow the three individual transgender plaintiffs to use appropriate restrooms at the university while the case is pending before the court.

Judge Marbley’s in-depth analysis of the jurisdictional issues provides a roadmap for a challenge before the Houston-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to Judge O’Connor’s nationwide injunction.  The Texas lawsuit attempted to short-circuit the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act by dragging an interpretive dispute into the federal district court when the relevant statute provides an administrative forum for hearing and deciding such issues before appealing them to the Courts of Appeals.

Judge Marbley was appointed to the district court by President Bill Clinton. Judge Pepper was appointed by President Barack Obama.

District Judge Enjoins Enforcement of H.B. 2 against Transgender Plaintiffs by the University of North Carolina

Posted on: August 29th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder granted a motion for preliminary injunction brought by attorneys for three transgender plaintiffs asserting a Title IX challenge to North Carolina’s bathroom bill, H.B.2. Carcano v. McCrory, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 114605 (M.D. N.C., August 26, 2016).  Finding that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their Title IX challenge in his district court because he was bound by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, 822 F.3d 709 (2016), to defer to the Department of Education’s interpretation of Title IX as banning gender identity discrimination and requiring restroom access consistent with gender identity by transgender students, Judge Schroeder concluded that satisfaction of the first test for preliminary injunctive relief, likelihood of success on the merits under 4th Circuit case law, was easily satisfied.  Judge Schroeder noted that the Supreme Court has stayed a preliminary injunction that was issued in the G.G. case while the school district petitions the Supreme Court to review the 4th Circuit’s ruling, but observed that the stay did not vacate the 4th Circuit’s decision, so the requirement for deferral remains the “law of the circuit,” binding on the district court.

Lambda Legal announced on August 29 that it would attempt to get the court to broaden the injunction so as to protect all transgender people in North Carolina from enforcement of the bathroom provision of H.B. 2.

This case arose after the North Carolina legislature held a special session on March 23, 2016, for the specific purpose of enacting legislation to prevent portions of a recently-passed Charlotte civil rights ordinance from going into effect on April 1. Most of the legislative comment was directed to the city’s ban on gender identity discrimination in places of public accommodation, which – according to some interpretations of the ordinance – would require businesses and state agencies to allow persons to use whichever restroom or locker room facilities they desired, regardless of their “biological sex.” (This was a distortion of the ordinance which, properly construed, would require public accommodations offering restroom facilities to make them available to transgender individuals without discrimination.)  Proponents of the “emergency” bill, stressing their concern to protection the privacy and safety of women and children from male predators who might declare themselves female in order to get access to female-designated facilities for nefarious purposes, secured passage of Section 1 of H.B. 2, the “bathroom bill” provision, which states that any restroom or similar single-sex designated facility operated by the state government (including subsidiary establishments such as public schools and the state university campuses) must designate multiple-user facilities as male or female and limit access according to the sex indicated on individuals’ birth certificates, labeled “biological sex” in the statute.

Another provision of the law preempted local civil rights legislation on categories not covered by state law, and prohibited lawsuits to enforce the state’s civil rights law. This would effectively supersede local ordinances, such as the recently-enacted Charlotte ordinance, wiping out its ban on sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination as well as several other categories covered by Charlotte but not by the rather narrow state civil rights law, such as veteran status. This had the effect of lifting Charlotte’s mandate that places of public accommodation not discriminate in their restroom facilities based on gender identity or sexual orientation, and limited the ordinance’s sex discrimination prohibition to distinctions based on “biological sex.”  Although private sector facilities could, if their owners desired, adopt policies accommodating transgender individuals, they would not have to do so.

A furious round of litigation ensued, with cases brought in two of the three North Carolina federal districts by a variety of plaintiffs, including the three individuals in Carcano (represented by the ACLU of North Carolina and Lambda Legal), who are all transgender people covered by Title IX by virtue of being students or employees of the University of North Carolina. Equality North Carolina, a statewide lobbying group, is co-plaintiff in the case.  Governor McCrory and state Republican legislative leaders sued the federal government, seeking declaratory judgments that H.B. 2 did not violate federal sex discrimination laws, while the Justice Department sued the state officials, seeking a declaration that H.B. 2 did violate federal sex discrimination laws and the Constitution.  A religiously-oriented firm, Alliance Defending Freedom, sued on behalf of parents and students challenging the validity of the Justice Department’s adoption of its Guidelines on Title IX compliance.  There has been some consolidation of the lawsuits, which are at various stages of pretrial maneuvering, discovery and motion practice.  Judge Schroeder’s ruling responded solely to a motion for preliminary relief on behalf of the three plaintiffs in the case against UNC, Governor McCrory and other state officials, including Attorney General Roy Cooper, the Democratic candidate for governor against McCrory.  Cooper is refusing to defend H.B. 2, requiring McCrory to resort to other defense counsel.

The University of North Carolina’s reaction to the passage of H.B. 2 has been curious to watch. At first University President Margaret Spellings announced that UNC was bound by the state law and would comply with it.  Then, after a storm of criticism and the filing of lawsuits, Spellings pointed out that H.B. 2 had no enforcement provisions and that the University would not actively enforce it.  Indeed, in the context of this preliminary injunction motion, the state argued that there was no need for an injunction because the University was not interfering with the three plaintiffs’ use of restroom facilities consistent with their gender identity.  Thus, they argued, there was no harm to the plaintiffs and no reason to issue an order compelling the University not to enforce the bathroom provisions.  Judge Schroeder rejected this argument, pointing out that “UNC’s pronouncements are sufficient to establish a justiciable case or controversy.  The university has repeatedly indicated that it will – indeed, it must – comply with state law.  Although UNC has not changed the words and symbols on its sex-segregated facilities, the meaning of those words and symbols has changed as a result of [the bathroom provisions], and UNC has no legal authority to tell its students or employees otherwise.” In light of those provisions, he wrote, “the sex-segregated signs deny permission to those whose birth certificates fail to identify them as a match.  UNC can avoid this result only by either (1) openly defying the law, which it has no legal authority to do, or (2) ordering that all bathrooms, showers, and other similar facilities on its campuses be designated as single occupancy, gender-neutral facilities.  Understandably, UNC has chosen to do neither.”  Since UNC has not expressly given transgender students and staff permission to use gender-identity-consistent facilities and has acknowledged that H.B. 2 is “the law of the state,” there is a live legal controversy and a basis to rule on the preliminary injunction motion.

Perhaps the key factual finding of Judge Schroeder’s very lengthy written opinion was that the state had failed to show that allowing transgender people to use restroom facilities consistent with their gender identity posed any significant risk of harm to other users of those facilities, and he also found little support for the state’s privacy claims, although he did not dispute the sincerity with which those claims were put forward by legislators. Indeed, as described by the judge, the state has been rather lax in providing any factual basis for its safety and privacy claims in litigating on this motion, and had even failed until rather late in the process to provide a transcript of the legislative proceedings, leaving the court pretty much in the dark as to the articulated purposes for passing the bathroom provision. According to the judge, the only factual submission by the state consisted of some newspaper clippings about men in other states who had recently intruded into women’s restrooms in order to make a political point. This, of course, had nothing to do with transgender people or North Carolina. The judge also pointed out that North Carolina has long had criminal laws in place that would protect the safety and privacy interests of people using public restroom facilities.  In reality, these “justifications” showed that the bathroom provision was unnecessary.  For purposes of balancing the interests of the parties in deciding whether a preliminary injunction should be issued, Schroeder concluded that the harm to plaintiffs in deterring them from using appropriate restroom facilities was greater than any harm to defendants in granting the requested injunction, and that the public interest weighed in favor of allowing these three plaintiffs to use restroom facilities consistent with their gender identities without any fear of prosecution for trespassing.  (Since the bathroom provision has no explicit enforcement mechanism, Judge Schroeder found, its limited effect is to back up the criminal trespassing law by, for example, designating a “men’s room” as being off-limits to a transgender man.)

However, Judge Schroeder, commenting that the constitutional equal protection and due process claims asserted by the plaintiffs were less well developed in the motion papers before him, refused to premise his preliminary injunction on a finding that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in proving that H.B. 2’s bathroom provision violates the 14th Amendment.  Accepting for purposes of analysis that the plaintiffs were asserting a sex discrimination claim that invoked “heightened scrutiny” of the state’s justification for the bathroom provision, he concluded that it was not clear that the state could not meet that test, referring to 4th Circuit precedents on individual privacy and the state’s interest in protecting the individual privacy of users of public restroom facilities.  He reached a similar conclusion regarding the due process arguments, putting off any ruling on them to the fall when he will hold a hearing on the merits.  There will be pre-trial motions to decide in the other cases that were consolidated with this one for purposes of judicial efficiency, so this ruling was not the last word on preliminary relief or on the constitutional claims.

Judge Schroeder explained that his injunction directly protects only the three plaintiffs and not all transgender students and staff at UNC. “The Title IX claim currently before the court is brought by the individual transgender Plaintiffs on their own behalf,” he wrote; “the current complaint asserts no claim for class relief or any Title IX claim by ACLU-NC on behalf of its members.  Consequently, the relief granted now is as to the individual transgender Plaintiffs.”  Despite that technicality, of course, this preliminary injunction puts the University on notice that any action to exclude transgender students or staff from restroom facilities consistent with their gender identity has already been determined by the district court to be a likely violation of Title IX, which could deter enforcement more broadly.  Given the University’s position in arguing this motion that it was not undertaking enforcement activity under the bathroom bill anyway, there was no immediate need for a broader preliminary injunction in any event.

Judge Schroeder was appointed to the court in 2007 by President George W. Bush.

Formalistic Texas Appeals Court Refuses to Issue a Change of “Sexual Designation” for Transgender Petitioner

Posted on: August 16th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Texas 14th District Court of Appeals in Houston upheld a trial judge’s denial of a transgender man’s request for a “gender designation change” embodied in a court order on August 2.  In re Rocher, 2016 WL 4131626, 2016 Tex. App. LEXIS 8266.  The court’s ruling turned on the absence of any Texas statute or regulation specifically authorizing courts to grant such requests.

According to the opinion for the three-judge panel by Justice Martha Hill Jamison, the petitioner, “formerly known as Aidyn Rocher,” filed an Original Petition for Change of Name of Adult in the Harris County District Court on January 28, 2015, almost exactly six months before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its marriage equality ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges.  At the time, same-sex marriage was not available in Texas, so a sexual designation would be important for somebody who sought to get married.  The Petition in this case sought not only a legal change of name to Alex Winston Hunter, but also a change of “sexual designation” from female to male.  The petitioner was represented by a lawyer, who is not named in the court’s opinion.

The lawyer presented two prior Texas court opinions to the trial judge to support the request for the change: In re Estate of Araguz, 443 S.W.3d 233 (Tex. App. 2014 – petition for review denied), and In re N.I.V.S., 2015 WL 1120913 (2015).  Then Hunter testified briefly, with all the testimony relating to the name change request, satisfying the requirement that the court make findings about the date and place of birth, the lack of a felony criminal record (felons may not legally change their names in Texas), and evidence that a name change is not being sought to evade creditors.  At the end of the hearing, petitioner’s lawyer pointed out to the court that under the Texas Family Code “proof of an order relating to a sex change could be used to prove identity for purposes of an application for a marriage license.”  At the end of the hearing, the trial judge granted the name change but denied the request for a “change in gender designation,” finding that there was no specific authority under Texas law authorizing a court to make such a change in designation.

Texas, in common with most (but not all) states, has a statutory procedure for changing the gender designation on a birth certificate. The petitioner in this case, however, was born in Pennsylvania, and Texas courts have no authority to order another state to issue a new birth certificate.  Furthermore, Texas law does not authorize issuance of a birth certificate for somebody who was not born in Texas.  The petitioner could try to get a new birth certificate from Pennsylvania, but he argued that this would be unduly burdensome, and that since Texas law does, in a broad sense, recognize the reality of gender transition by allowing such changes on birth certificates, the court should be able to issue such a declaration in the context of a name-change case.

The court discounted the precedential value of the cases that petitioner’s lawyer had presented. In Araguz, the court was dealing with a dispute about inheritance rights of a transgender woman who had married a Texas man, and the court of appeals had concluded, citing a Texas statute authorizing county clerks to accept a copy of a “court order relating to the applicant’s name change or sex change” in processing a marriage license application, that “Texas law recognizes that an individual who has had a ‘sex change’ is eligible to marry a person of the opposite sex.”  But, wrote Justice Jamison, “The Araguz court did not, however, suggest that the section authorized a trial court to order a change in a person’s gender designation.”  In the other case, N.I.V.S., although the court of appeals had noted that “one of the parties had ‘obtained a court order changing his identity from female to male,’” citing the same section of the marriage statute, the court in that case had stated, “because it is not necessary to the disposition of this appeal, we do not comment on the effect, if any, of such an order.”

Thus, although some past Texas court opinions had intimated that court might, or actually had, issued orders recognizing changes of sex designation, this court found that none of those cases directly answered the question whether a Texas court has authority to do such a thing, and this panel of judges was unwilling to take that step without some direct prior precedent or statutory authorization.

The petitioner had also argued on appeal that in light of Obergefell, it would be unconstitutional for the courts of Texas to refuse to issue such an order if presented with appropriate evidence.  Unfortunately, however, the trial hearing took place before Obergefell, so this claim had not been presented to the trial court, and appeals courts generally refuse to consider arguments that were not raised at trial and thus “preserved” for review.  A good argument can be made that the Supreme Court’s commentary in that case, and in the prior cases of Lawrence v. Texas and United States v. Windsor, would support a claim that the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment would include a right of self-determination in matters of gender identity, as a matter of respect for individual dignity.  But this court ruled out any consideration of that argument.

Indeed, in a footnote the court also stated that because it had found lacking any authority to issue such an order, it “need not in this case take any position regarding what type of evidence could suffice to demonstrate a gender change.” This is a much-contested issue in other jurisdictions, especially focusing on whether and the degree to which a transgender person must undergo surgical alteration before they can claim to have transitioned sufficiently to change their sex for legal purposes.

Of course, after Obergefell it is unnecessary for a transgender person to get a legal designation of sex in order to marry the person with whom they are in love, because the gender of the parties has been rendered irrelevant.  But sex still matters for other purposes, and particularly for legal identification documents such as driver’s licenses and voter identification card for non-drivers, so the unavailability of a mechanism in Texas for transgender residents born in other jurisdictions to obtain such a declaration from a Texas court is another unnecessary stumbling block to getting on with one’s life.

Many years ago, a more empathetic court, the Maryland Court of Appeals, ruled in In re Heilig (2003) that a Maryland trial court could draw upon its general equitable powers to declare a change of sex designation for a transgender applicant who was born, coincidentally, in Pennsylvania.  And, interestingly, as of August 8, 2016, new regulations in Pennsylvania allow a transgender person born in that state to obtain a new birth certificate by providing certain documentation to the Health Department, including a declaration under oath by a doctor that the individual has received appropriate clinical treatment to be considered male or female, as the case may be, without getting into specifics.  The necessary information is easily available on several websites.  So the petitioner in this case can download the necessary forms and obtain a new birth certificate from Pennsylvania with minimal expense and fuss.  Unfortunately, not every state is so accommodating, and some still refuse to issue new birth certificates for this purpose.

Federal Court Blocks Implementation Mississippi HB 1523

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

 Just minutes before Mississippi’s anti-LGBT H.B. 1523 was scheduled to go into effect on July 1, U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves filed a 60-page opinion explaining why he was granting a preliminary injunction to the plaintiffs in two cases challenging the measure, which he consolidated for this purpose under the name of Barber v. Bryant.

 

                According to Judge Reeves, H.B. 1523 violates both the 1st Amendment’s Establishment of Religion Clause and the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.  His lengthy, scholarly opinion expands upon some of the points he made just days earlier when he granted a preliminary injunction in a separate lawsuit, blocking implementation of one provision of H.B. 1523 that allowed local officials responsible for issuing marriage licenses to “recuse” themselves from issuing licenses to same-sex couples based on their “sincere” religious beliefs.

 

                Unlike the earlier ruling, the June 30 opinion treats H.B. 1523 as broadly unconstitutional on its face.  Although Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, the lead defendant in all three lawsuits, announced that the state would immediately appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, Reeves’ scholarly opinion seemed likely to withstand judicial review.  Attorney General Jim Hood, Mississippi’s only Democratic statewide elected official and also a named defendant, suggested that he might not be joining in such an appeal, voicing agreement with Reeves’ decision and suggesting that the legislature had “duped” the public by passing an unnecessary bill.  He pointed out that the 1st Amendment already protected clergy from any adverse consequences of refusing to perform same-sex marriages, and that the state’s previously-enacted Religious Freedom Restoration Act already provides substantial protection for the free exercise rights of Mississippians.

 

                At the heart of H.B. 1523 is its Section 2, which spells out three “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions” that are entitled, as found by Judge Reeves, to “special legal protection.”  These are “(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman; (b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and (c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at birth.”  According to the statute, any person or entity that holds one or more of these beliefs is entitled to be free from any sanction by the government for acting upon them by, for example, denying restroom access to a transgender person or refusing to provide goods or services to a same-sex couple for their wedding.

 

                Of course, the state may not override federal rights and protections, and the plaintiffs argue in these cases that by privileging people whose religious beliefs contradict the federal constitutional and statutory rights of LGBT people, the state of Mississippi has violated its obligation under the 1st Amendment to preserve strict neutrality concerning religion and its obligation under the 14th amendment to afford “equal protection of the law” to LGBT people.

 

                Reeves, who ruled in 2014 that Mississippi’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, agreed with the plaintiffs as to all of their arguments.   For purposes of granting a preliminary injunction, he did not have to reach an ultimate decision on the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims.  It would suffice to show that they are “likely” to prevail on the merits.  But anybody reading Reeves’ strongly-worded opinion would have little doubt about his view of the merits.

 

                In an introductory portion of the opinion, he spells out his conclusions succinctly: “The Establishment Clause is violated because persons who hold contrary religious beliefs are unprotected – the State has put its thumb on the scale to favor some religious beliefs over others.  Showing such favor tells ‘nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community,’” quoting from a Supreme Court decision from 2000, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290.  “And the Equal Protection Clause is violated by H.B. 1523’s authorization of arbitrary discrimination against lesbian, gay, transgender, and unmarried persons.”

 

                Much of the opinion was devoted to rejecting the state’s arguments that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the lawsuits, that the defendants were not liable to suit on these claims, and that injunctive relief was unnecessary because nobody had been injured by the law.  Reeves cut through these arguments with ease.  A major Supreme Court precedent backing up his decision on these points is Romer v. Evans, the 1996 case in which LGBT rights groups won a preliminary injunction against Colorado government officials to prevent Amendment 2 from going into effect.  Amendment 2 was a ballot initiative passed by Colorado voters in 1992 that prevented the state from providing any protection against discrimination for gay people.  The state courts found that the LGBT rights groups could challenge its constitutionality, and it never did go into effect, because the Supreme Court ultimately found that it violated the Equal Protection Clause.

 

                Judge Reeves ended his introductory section with a quote from the Romer v. Evans opinion:  “It is not within our constitutional tradition to enact laws of this sort.”

 

                In his earlier opinion, dealing with the clerk “recusal” provision, Reeves had alluded to Mississippi’s resistance to the Supreme Court’s racial integration rulings from the 1950s and 1960s, and he did so at greater length in this opinion, focusing on how H.B. 1523 was specifically intended by the legislature as a response to the Supreme Court’s ruling last year in Obergefell v. Hodges, holding that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.  Mississippi legislators made clear during the consideration of this bill that its intention was to allow government officials and private businesses to discriminate against LGBT people without suffering any adverse consequences, just as the state had earlier sought to empower white citizens of Mississippi to preserve their segregated way of life despite the Supreme Court’s rejection of race discrimination under the 14th Amendment.

 

                Reeves quoted comments by Governor Bryant criticizing Obergefell as having “usurped” the state’s “right to self-governance” and mandating the state to comply with “federal marriage standards – standards that are out of step with the wishes of many in the United States and that are certainly out of step with the majority of Mississippians.”  In a footnote, Reeves observed, “The Governor’s remarks sounded familiar.  In the mid-1950s, Governor J.P. Coleman said that Brown v. Board of Education ‘represents an unwarranted invasion of the rights and powers of the states.’”  Furthermore, “In 1962, before a joint session of the Mississippi Legislature – and to a ‘hero’s reception’ – Governor Ross Barnett was lauded for invoking states’ rights during the battle to integrate the University of Mississippi.”  Reeves also noted how the racial segregationists in the earlier period had invoked religious beliefs as a basis for failing to comply with the Supreme Court’s decisions.

 

                Turning to the merits of the case, Reeves addressed the state’s argument that the purpose of the statute was to “address the denigration and disfavor religious persons felt in the wake of Obergefell,” and the legislative sponsors presented it as such, as reflected in the bill’s title: “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act.”  Reeves pointed out what was really going on.  “The title, text, and history of H.B. 1523 indicate that the bill was the State’s attempt to put LGBT citizens back in their place after Obergefell,” he wrote.  “The majority of Mississippians were granted special rights to not serve LGBT citizens, and were immunized from the consequences of their actions.  LGBT Mississippians, in turn, were ‘put in a solitary class with respect to transactions and relations in both the private and governmental spheres’ to symbolize their second-class status.” (The quotation is from Romer v. Evans.)  “As in Romer, Windsor, and Obergefell,” Reeves continued, “this ‘status-based enactment’ deprived LGBT citizens of equal treatment and equal dignity under the law.”

 

                Because state law in Mississippi does not expressly forbid discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, the state tried to claim that in fact the bill did not have the effect of imposing any new harm.  However, recently the city of Jackson passed an ordinance forbidding such discrimination, and the University of Southern Mississippi also has a non-discrimination policy in place.  “H.B. 1523 would have a chilling effect on Jacksonians and members  of the USM community who seek the protection of their anti-discrimination policies,” wrote Reeves.  “If H.B. 1523 goes into effect, neither the City of Jackson nor USM could discipline or take adverse action against anyone who violated their policies on the basis of a ‘Section 2’ belief.”

 

                The court held that because of the Establishment Clause part of the case, H.B. 1523 was subject to strict scrutiny judicial review, and also pointed out that under Romer v. Evans, anti-LGBT discrimination by the state is unconstitutional unless there is some rational  justification for it.  He rejected the state’s argument that it had a compelling interest to confer special rights upon religious objectors.  “Under the guise of providing additional protection for religious exercise,” he wrote, H.B. 1523 “creates a vehicle for state-sanctioned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  It is not rationally related to a legitimate end.”  Indeed, he asserted, “The deprivation of equal protection of the laws is H.B. 1523’s very essence.”

 

                Reeves easily found that the standard for ordering preliminary relief had been met.  Not only was it likely that H.B. 1523 would be found unconstitutional in an ultimate ruling in the case, but it was clear that it imposed irreparable harm on LGBT citizens, that a balancing of harms favored the plaintiffs over the defendants, and that the public interest would be served by enjoining operation of H.B. 1523 while the lawsuits continue.  “The State argues that the public interest is served by enforcing its democratically adopted laws,” he wrote.  “The government certainly has a powerful interest in enforcing its laws.  That interest, though, yields when a particular law violates the Constitution.  In such situations the public interest is not disserved by an injunction preventing its implementation.”

 

                Reeves concluded, “Religious freedom was one of the building blocks of this great nation, and after the nation was torn apart, the guarantee of equal protection under law was used to stitch it back together.  But H.B. 1523 does not honor that tradition of religious freedom, nor does it respect the equal dignity of all of Mississippi’s citizens.  It must be enjoined.”

 

The current status of transgender legal rights in the U.S.

Posted on: June 8th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

I was invited by Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum to give a talk at Friday night services at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah on June 3 about the current status of transgender rights in the U.S.  CBST observes Gay Pride Month with a series of guest speakers on Friday nights, and the first Friday of the month was designated as “Trans Pride Shabbat” this year.  Below is a revised version of the text I prepared for that talk, although on Friday night I left this text in my folder and spoke extemporaneously.

This month we mark the anniversary of a major victory for transgender rights in the U.S. which has generally been overlooked. There was much celebration last June 26 when the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples were entitled to marry and to have our marriages recognized by state and local governments under the 14th Amendment .  What few mentioned in those celebrations was that this decision implicitly overruled some terrible state court rulings from around the country holding that marriages involving transgender people were invalid under the state bans on same-sex marriage.  By removing any gender requirements for marriage, the Supreme Court was not only opening up marriage nationwide for same-sex couples, it was also making it possible for transgender people to marry the partners they love regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.  This would also cancel out any argument that a married person who was transitioning was no longer validly married or should be required to divorce their spouse. However, since every state now has no-fault divorce, of course if such a transition takes place and the couple decides to end their marriage, there would be no impediment under state law to their doing so.

Let’s consider the current legislative status of transgender rights protections in the U.S. As of today, 17 states expressly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico).  Massachusetts prohibits gender identity discrimination in employment and housing, and the legislature is working on adding public accommodations, with the likely approval of the governor.  Most of these laws have specific exemptions for religious institutions, and some of the states also have Religious Freedom statutes that might be interpreted to provide exemptions for businesses whose owners have religious objections, but the question of such exemptions for businesses is not really settled and heavily argued.

Three states prohibit sexual orientation discrimination by statute but not yet gender identity discrimination: New Hampshire, New York and Wisconsin. In New York, however, the State Division of Human Rights earlier this year published a regulation stating that it interprets the New York Human Rights Law ban on sex discrimination to include discrimination because of gender identity, and the ban on disability discrimination to cover gender dysphoria, thus providing protecting to individuals who have not yet finished transitioning to the gender with which they identify.  That interpretation has not yet been tested in the courts, but it is consistent with some unfolding federal law developments and  also some older decisions by New York trial courts.

In addition, many states have now included specific protection on the basis of gender identity under their Hate Crimes statutes, which authorize enhanced penalties against people who perpetrate violent crimes against people because of their transgender identity. Also, many cities, towns, villages and counties around the country have passed local laws banning gender identity discrimination.  In states that lack such laws, many of the large cities have passed them, although there is a disturbing new trend in some of those states for the state legislatures to pass laws prohibiting localities from going beyond the provisions of the state civil rights laws.  Lawsuits are challenging these limitations.

At the federal level, two statutes, the Matthew Shepard – James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act and the Violence against Women Act, provide for enhanced penalties for those who commit crimes of physical violence against people because of their gender identity, but only when there is some connection to interstate activity.   The interstate activity requirement relates to Congress’s limited power to pass criminal statutes because Article I of the Constitution does not list criminal laws, so federal criminal statues are normally based on Congress’s power to regulate commerce between the states or to enforce other provisions of the Constitution.  In states that do not provide gender identity protection under their hate crimes laws, state prosecutors can refer cases to the US Justice Department, which may prosecute after determining that the crime implicates interstate commerce.  For example, if the weapon used to commit the crime had moved across state lines, or if the crime (such as kidnaping) involved transportation on an interstate highway, the federal Hate Crimes law could come into play.

Congress has not yet approved the Equality Act, which was introduced last year to amend all federal civil rights statutes to list gender identity and sexual orientation as prohibited grounds of discrimination. This would provide protection in the areas of employment, housing, public accommodations, credit, educational institutions, and all programs that receive federal financial assistance or are operated by federal contractors, and would also cover state government employment and federal employment.  The bill enjoys wide co-sponsorship among Democratic members of both houses, but has only a handful of Republican co-sponsors, and the Republican leadership in both houses has denied committee hearings or votes on the bill, so it cannot be passed unless there is a significant change in the political balance of Congress or in the views of the Republican Party.

The Obama Administration adopted executive orders last year that prohibit federal executive branch agencies and federal contractors from discriminating in employment or provision of services because of gender identity or sexual orientation. These orders are enforced administratively within the executive agencies, not in federal courts.  However, there has been recent activity in Congress placing the federal contractor protections into question.  An impasse between Republicans and Democrats has led to a stalemate over adoption of important pending spending bills and has generated substantial debate on the floor of the House of Representatives, because there are enough Republicans who will vote in favor of this protection (which essentially incorporates the terms of the President’s executive order into legislation) to add it to the pending bills as amendments, but then not enough votes from the Republican majority in the House to pass the resulting amended bills, which are generally opposed by the Democrats because they provide insufficient funding for federal agencies or place objectionable restrictions on the agencies’ actions.  This curious situation has brought the legislative authorization process to a temporary halt, and looms as a potential crisis as we move through this hotly contested congressional election cycle.

There are areas where there is much contention now in legislatures and the courts over transgender discrimination claims asserted under existing sex discrimination laws.   Is it possible that gender identity discrimination is already illegal, even when it is not mentioned as a prohibited ground of discrimination?  This is the hot issue of the day that may reach the Supreme Court next term.

In 1964, Congress considered a Civil Rights Act that was mainly intended to ban race and religious discrimination in employment and public services. However, the employment provision, Title VII, was amended in the House of Representatives to add “sex” as a prohibited ground of employment discrimination.  The term “sex” was not defined in the statute, and historical accounts show that the amendment was introduced by a Conservative Virginia representative, possibly as part of a strategy to keep the bill from being passed.  When Title VII went into effect in July 1965, some attempts were made to bring discrimination claims on behalf of gay and transgender people, but they were rejected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency in charge of enforcement of Title VII, and in early decisions by the federal courts.

In 1972, Congress enacted Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, which forbids sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal funding. The U.S. Department of Education and courts interpreting Title IX have generally followed the interpretation of “sex” under Title VII.  In early cases they refused to use this statute to protect gay and transgender people from discrimination.  Other federal statutes addressing sex discrimination, including the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, also received narrow interpretations of their sex discrimination provisions.

In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some opponents of that bill complained that it might be hijacked by sexual minorities claiming that homosexuality or transsexuality could be deemed disabilities.  Republican Senator Jesse Helms from North Carolina obtained an amendment specifically stating that homosexuality  and “transsexualism” would not be considered disabilities for purposes of protection under this statute.

Interpretation of federal sex discrimination laws began to change after 1989, when the Supreme Court decided an important Title VII case, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. Ann Hopkins was denied a partnership at a national accounting firm because some of the partners thought she was not adequately feminine in her appearance and conduct.  One said she needed “a course in charm school,” and the head of her office told her she should wear make-up and jewelry and walk, talk and dress more femininely if she wanted to be a partner.  The Supreme Court said that this kind of sexual stereotype was evidence of a discriminatory motive under Title VII, and stated that Congress intended to knock down all such barriers to advancement of women in the workplace, signaling a broad interpretation of sex discrimination.

Over the following two decades, lower federal courts have used the Price Waterhouse decision to adopt a broader interpretation of “sex” under Title VII and other federal sex discrimination provisions. By early in this century federal appeals courts started to extend protection to transgender plaintiffs on the theory that they were suffering discrimination because they failed to conform to sex stereotypes.  Federal circuit and district courts in many different parts of the country have now found gender identity protection in cases under the Violence against Women Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  In an important breakthrough, the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that discrimination against a transgender state employee violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, finding that the same standard used for sex discrimination claims should be applied to gender identity claims.

One of the key factors advancing this broad interpretation of sex discrimination was President Obama’s appointment of Chai Feldblum, then a law professor at Georgetown University, to be a commissioner at the EEOC during his first term. (She is now serving a second term at the EEOC.)  Commissioner Feldblum, the first openly lesbian or gay EEOC commissioner, argued effectively that the agency should adopt a broad interpretation of “sex” and apply it to discrimination claims by federal employees.  In three important rulings over the last few years, the EEOC held first that gender identity discrimination claims may be brought under Title VII, then that sexual orientation discrimination claims could also be brought under Title VII, and late last year that Title VII requirs federal agencies to allow transgender employees to use workplace restrooms consistent with their gender identity.  Building on these rulings as well as the growing body of federal court rulings, the Justice Department, the Department of Education, and other federal agencies with civil rights enforcement responsibility, have also begun to interpret their statutory sex discrimination laws more broadly.

The EEOC was ruling on internal discrimination claims within the federal government, but the agency has also undertaken an affirmative litigation strategy, filing briefs in cases pending in federal court brought by private litigants against non-governmental employers. In addition, the EEOC has filed its own gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination lawsuits in federal courts on behalf of individuals who filed charges against employers with that agency.

The Department of Education and the Justice Department have become involved in several cases brought by transgender high school students under Title IX, seeking access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity.

In a case that drew national attention last year, the Education and Justice Departments represented a transgender high school student in Illinois who was denied appropriate bathroom access and negotiated a settlement with the school district affirming the student’s rights. That attracted a federal court lawsuit against the government by Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing litigation group representing some objecting parents and students.  The lawsuit claims that Title IX does not apply to this situation and that their children’s “fundamental right of bodily privacy” was violated by the terms of the settlement.  It also claims that the Education and Justice Departments did not have authority to adopt this new interpretation of the law without proposing a formal regulation under the procedures established by the Administrative Procedure Act, which include a right of any interested member of the public to challenge a new regulation directly in the federal appeals courts.

This issue burst into wider public discussion when the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, passed an ordinance forbidding sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, and made clear that transgender people in Charlotte would be allowed to use public and workplace restrooms consistent with their gender identity. The ordinance was set to take effect on April 1, 2016.  This stirred up a storm in the North Carolina legislature, which held a special session late in March to pass H.B. 2, a measure that preempted local anti-discrimination laws and provided that in government-operated buildings the restrooms would be strictly segregated by biological sex, meaning, for example, that a person can’t use a women’s restroom unless their birth certificate indicates that they are female.  This would apply to public colleges, universities and schools at all levels and in all other government buildings.

The main focus of debate was Republican legislators’ argument that allowing transgender women to use women’s restrooms would present a danger to women and children of possible sexual assault by heterosexual men declaring themselves to be transgender in order to gain improper access. The argument is patently ridiculous.  Seventeen states prohibit gender identity discrimination in public facilities, as do several hundred local jurisdictions, but there are no reports that these laws have enabled male sexual predators to gain access to women’s restrooms, and existing criminal laws against public lewdness and sexual assault can easily be used to prosecute such individuals.  In a alternative argument, the opponents of transgender restroom access are now pushing the theory argued in the new Illinois lawsuit: that allowing transgender people into restrooms consistent with their gender identity threatens the “right of bodily privacy” of other users to avoid exposing themselves to the view of transgender people.  Those making this argument reject the proposition that a transgender woman is genuinely a woman and a transgender man is genuinely a man, and argue that there is a tradition of sheltering people in restrooms from the gaze of members of the opposite sex.

A similar rejection of the reality of transgender identity can be found in a law recently passed by the state of Mississippi, which specifically authorizes people whose religious belief rejects transgender identity to refuse to treat transgender people consistent with their gender identity, including in places of business when it comes to things like restroom access. This reverts back to the views that used to be expressed by courts during the 20th century, rejecting the idea of gender transition and insisting that gender must be defined solely by a determination made at someone’s birth and entered on their birth certificate.

North Carolina’s H.B. 2 and the Mississippi law are now both the subject of multiple federal law suits disputing the bodily privacy argument and forcing courts to confront the question whether discrimination against transgender people violates the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, Title IX and Title VII.  While this dispute was pending, the Obama Administration threatened North Carolina with enforcement action under Title VII and Title IX, and distributed a letter in May to educational administrators nationwide advising them of the requirement to respect the rights of transgender students and staff under Title IX.  The administration’s action attracted new lawsuits, including one filed by the State of Texas on behalf of itself and a dozen other states challenging the administration’s interpretation of Title IX.

Meanwhile, during April the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, ruling in a high school restroom case brought by a transgender boy under Title IX, held that the federal district court should defer to the Education Department’s interpretation of that statute, reversed the district court’s dismissal order, and sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings.  At the end of May, the full bench of the 4th Circuit rejected the School District’s petition for reconsideration of the case, and on June 7 the school district filed a notice with the 4th Circuit that it plans to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision.   This will probably result in a “stay” of the 4th Circuit’s ruling, which will delay further consideration by the district court of the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction so that he can access the boys’ restroom facilities at his high school when classes resume in the fall.

Although legal commentators have suggested that it is unlikely the Supreme Court will agree to hear this case, it is at least possible. The notice the School Board filed focuses on two arguments: that the district court should not defer to the Education Department’s interpretation of Title IX, and that giving transgender students the restroom access they desire violates the “bodily privacy rights” of other students.  The first argument would require the Supreme Court to overrule a precedent that has been strongly criticized by the Court’s most conservative justices.  The second would require the Court to broaden the right of privacy under the Due Process Clause to encompass a right not to share restroom facilities with transgender people.

We should begin to see decisions in many of the pending lawsuits in the months ahead. One of the complications facing us now in getting a resolution to this controversy is that the Supreme Court is operating with only 8 members since the death of Justice Scalia in February.  Senate Republicans have refused to hold hearings and vote on President Obama’s nominee for the seat, Chief Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  This vacancy may lead the Supreme Court to avoid taking for review controversial cases as to which it is likely to be sharply divided, such as the case from Virginia involving the transgender student’s discrimination claim under Title IX.  The court of appeals decision in that case was 2-1. The dissenting judge urged the school district to seek review from the Supreme Court.  Although there might be some delays in getting this issue to the Supreme, it appears likely that the next big LGBT rights case to go to that Court will focus on whether gender identity discrimination is a form of “sex” discrimination that can be challenged under existing sex discrimination statutes and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.