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Posts Tagged ‘U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit’

Virginia Federal District Court to Determine Whether Gavin Grimm Case is Moot

Posted on: August 15th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

On August 2, the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals announced that instead of holding oral argument in Gavin Grimm’s lawsuit challenging the Gloucester County School Board’s bathroom access policy, it was sending the case back to the district court for a determination whether Grimm’s recent graduation from high school made the case moot.  Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 14158.  The three-judge panel had tentatively scheduled an oral argument for September to consider yet again whether U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar erred when he dismissed Grimm’s Title IX sex discrimination claim against the Gloucester County School Board. The circuit panel speculated that its jurisdiction to decide the case may have been ended by Grimm’s graduation, but that it was not clear from the record before the court and the supplemental briefs filed by the parties earlier this summer whether this is so, and the court concluded that more fact-finding is necessary before the issue of its jurisdiction can be decided.

Grimm’s mother filed suit on his behalf against the school board in July 2015, during the summer before his junior year, alleging that the Board’s policy of requiring students to use restrooms based on their biological sex rather than their gender identity violated Grimm’s right to be free of sex discrimination protected under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.  The Board moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Title IX did not apply to this dispute and that its action did not violate the Constitution.  Judge Doumar ruled on September 17, 2015, in favor of the Board’s motion to dismiss the Title IX claim, reserved judgment on the 14th Amendment claim, and denied Grimm’s motion for a preliminary injunction to allow him to use the boys’ bathrooms as he appealed the dismissal.  While the case was pending before Judge Doumar, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice filed a joint statement with the court supporting Grimm’s claim that barring him from using the boys’ bathrooms violated the ban on sex discrimination.

Ruling on Grimm’s appeal of the dismissal on April 19, 2016, the 4th Circuit focused on the document issued by the federal agencies, finding that the district court should have deferred to their interpretation of the Title IX regulations, finding it to be a reasonable interpretation of the regulations.  The court reversed Judge Doumar’s dismissal of the Title IX claim, and sent the case back to Doumar to reconsider Grimm’s request for a preliminary injunction.  Reacting to the Circuit’s decision, Doumar issued a preliminary injunction on June 23, 2016, too late to get Grimm access to the boys’ bathrooms during his junior year but potentially ensuring that he could use appropriate bathrooms at the high school during his senior year.  But that was not to be.  Even though Judge Doumar and the 4th Circuit refused to stay the preliminary injunction while the case was on appeal, the School Board successfully petitioned the Supreme Court for a stay while it prepared to file a petition to have the Supreme Court review the 4th Circuit’s ruling.  Thus, as the 2016-17 school year began, Grimm was still barred from using the boys’ bathrooms at his high school.

The Supreme Court subsequently granted the Board’s petition to review the 4th Circuit’s decision, continuing the stay of the preliminary injunction, and scheduled an oral argument to take place on March 28, 2017.  Meanwhile, Donald Trump was elected president, took office in January, 2017, and appointed Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General and Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education.  Sessions and DeVos disagreed with the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX, and on February 22 announced that the Departments of Education and Justice were “withdrawing” the document that had been submitted to the district court and, in effect, taking no position at that time on the appropriate interpretation of Title IX, instead stating that the question of bathroom access in public schools should be decided by the states and localities, not the federal government.  The Supreme Court reacted to this development by cancelling the oral argument, vacating the 4th Circuit’s decision, and sending the case back to the 4th Circuit to address the merits of Grimm’s appeal as a matter of judicial interpretation of the relevant statutory and regulatory provisions, there no longer being an executive branch interpretation to which the court need defer.  The 4th Circuit tentatively scheduled an argument to be held in September, but then, after Grimm graduated in June, the parties filed supplemental briefs to update the court on what had happened since it last considered the case.

The School Board argued that the case had become moot because Grimm had graduated. “The School Board argues that, absent any allegation of a ‘particular intention to return to school after graduation,’ this change of status deprives Grimm of a continued interest in the litigation, rendering the case moot,” wrote the court in its brief order issued on August 2.  “The School Board states further that its bathroom policy does not necessarily apply to alumni, and that the issue of whether the policy is applicable to alumni is not yet ripe for adjudication.”  Grimm responded that it was enough that his possible “future attendance at alumni and school-community events” at the high school gave him a continuing concrete interest in obtaining the injunctive relief he was seeking in this lawsuit.  He also pointed out that the School Board’s “noncommittal statement” that the policy did “not necessarily apply” to alumni “falls short of a representation that the Board will voluntarily cease discriminating against” him.

The court does not have jurisdiction of the case unless there is an “actual case or controversy” between the parties. The Supreme Court has established that this means that the plaintiff, Grimm, must have a concrete interest in the outcome, which would mean that the policy he is challenging must actually affect him personally.  “Thus,” wrote the court, “a crucial threshold question arises in this appeal whether ‘one or both of the parties plainly lack a continuing interest’ in the resolution of this case such that it has become moot.”  The court decided that “the facts on which our jurisdiction could be decided are not in the record before us.”  The factual record in this case consists of the sworn allegations that were presented to the district court back in 2015 when it was ruling on the Board’s motion to dismiss the case, when Grimm was but a rising junior at the high school.  The parties’ assertions in their briefs are just that: merely argumentative assertions, not sworn statements of fact or actual testimony submitted in court.  Thus, the 4th Circuit panel decided it was necessary to send the case back to the district court for “factual development of the record by the district court and possibly additional jurisdictional discovery.”  They are not sending the case back for a new ruling on the merits, just for a ruling on the question of mootness after additional fact-finding.  Any determination by Judge Doumar that the case is moot could, of course, be appealed by Grimm, so final resolution of this case may still take some time, and it is possible that the courts will resolve the mootness issue against the Board.

If the mootness issue is decided in Grimm’s favor and the case returns to the 4th Circuit for a ruling on whether the Title IX claim was appropriately dismissed, it may yet provide a vehicle for the ACLU LGBT Right Project and the ACLU Foundation of Virginia, which represent Grimm, to get this issue back before the Supreme Court, although if they are ultimately successful in the 4th Circuit, that would depend on the School Board persisting in seeking Supreme Court review.  However, this issue is being litigated in other places, in some cases involving elementary school students, and it is possible that one of the other cases will get far enough along to knock at the Supreme Court’s door long before the plaintiff has graduated.  Indeed, while this litigation drama was unfolding in Gloucester County, the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on May 30 in Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District No. 1 Board of Education, 858 F.3d 1034, that Title IX prohibits a public school from refusing to let transgender students use bathrooms appropriate for their gender identity, so the issue has percolated further elsewhere in the country.  It seems only a matter of time before it gets to the Supreme Court, regardless of what the Trump Administration may say about the issue, unless Congress intervenes by amending Title IX, an outcome that is unlikely unless the Senate Republicans abolish the filibuster rule for ordinary legislation, as Trump has been asking them to do, so far without success.

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.

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.

 

4th Circuit Votes to Strike Down Virginia’s Ban on Same-Sex Marriages

Posted on: July 28th, 2014 by Art Leonard 1 Comment

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit voted 2-1 to declare Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.  The opinion for the court issued on July 28 in Bostic v. Schaefer, 2014 U.S. App. LEXIS 14298, 2014 WL 3702493, did not go into immediate effect.  The court’s rules give the defendants up to two weeks to file a motion for rehearing or en banc review, or to file a notice to all parties that they are seeking review in the Supreme Court.  If the defendants don’t take any of those steps, the mandate must be issued within seven days, so the earliest date this ruling would go into effect would most likely be August 18.  However, since the two county court clerks who are the appellants are represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing litigation group strongly dedicated to opposing same-sex marriage, it seems likely that a motion for en banc review or a petition to the Supreme Court will be filed, which would stay the ruling until the Supreme Court disposes of the case.

The circuit court’s decision will dictate the result of pending litigation in North and South Carolina and West Virginia, where pending cases have been “on hold” while the district judges waited to see what the 4th Circuit would do.  Those district judges might decide to wait to see whether there is further review before issuing their rulings, however.  One state in the 4th Circuit, Maryland, already has marriage equality as a result of state legislation ratified by the voters in 2012.

The consolidated cases decided by the 4th Circuit, Bostic v. Schaefer and Harris v. Rainey, took a circuitous route to get to the appeals court.  After the Supreme Court issued its decision on June 26, 2013, striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, the ACLU’s LGBT Rights Project announced that it was seeking plaintiffs for a lawsuit to challenge Virginia’s marriage ban, which is contained in statutes and a constitutional amendment.  While the ACLU was preparing its case, to be filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, a same-sex couple in Norfolk, which is in the Eastern District of Virginia, decided to go forward on their own with their own private attorney.  Timothy Bostic and Tony London filed their lawsuit and the ensuing publicity brought an offer by the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), which had litigated against California Proposition 8, to provide representation by Ted Olson and David Boies.  AFER’s offer was accepted, and the new legal team expanded the lawsuit by adding another couple as plaintiffs, Carol Schall and Mary Townley, who had married in California in 2008 and were seeking recognition of their marriage.

Olson and Boies pushed their case ahead more quickly than the ACLU, which filed its lawsuit shortly after the Bostic case was filed.  The ACLU focused on getting the trial judge in the Western District, Michael Urbanski, to certify their case as a class action, seeking to ensure that a win would be binding throughout the state.  Olson and Boies focused on pushing forward quickly to a summary judgment that would get their case up to the court of appeals, and District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen accommodated them with a grant of summary judgment on Feburary 13, which she stayed pending appeal.  When the appeal was filed, the ACLU moved to intervene on behalf of their plaintiff class, as Judge Urbanski had put their case on hold pending a ruling by the 4th Circuit, and it was agreed that the ACLU would participate in the briefing and argument.

Things were also complicated on the defense side of the case.  Bostic and London had originally sued the governor and attorney general, as well as the local clerk in Norfolk who would not take their marriage application.  After the Schall-Townley plaintiffs were added, the amended complaint added Virginia State Registrar Janet Rainey, whose office plays a role in recognizing out-of-state marriages, as a defendant. The 2013 election in November turned out the Republicans and brought in the Democrats, and the new state leadership, Governor Terry McAuliffe and Attorney General Mark Herring, are marriage equality supporters who were not inclined to defend the ban.  Herring filed notices with the courts that the state would not provide a defense, which left that role to the clerks:  Norfolk Clerk George E. Schaefer, III, and Michele McQuigg, the Prince William County Clerk whose motion to intervene had been granted shortly before Herring, who was representing Rainey, notified the court that he would not offer a defense.  David Oakley, a local attorney from Chesapeake, Virginia, and Austin Nimocks, an attorney from Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing religious litigation group opposed to same-sex marriage, ended up representing the clerks in appealing Judge Wright Allen’s ruling.

At the oral argument before the three-judge panel in Richmond on May 13, Oakley and Nimocks argued for the clerks, Virginia Solicitor General Stuart Raphael argued on behalf of Rainey (now representing the Virginia executive branch’s position that the ban was unconstitutional), Olson argued for the AFER plaintiffs, and James Esseks, Director of the ACLU’s LGBT Rights Project, argued for the class action plaintiffs.

The three-judge panel selected for the argument was suitably diverse.  The senior member of the panel, Paul V. Neimeyer, was appointed to the court by George H.W. Bush in 1990.  Roger L. Gregory was appointed by Bill Clinton toward the end of his second term, was blocked in the Senate, and then was reappointed by George W. Bush as part of a deal to break a deadlock over Bush’s first group of appellate appointees.  Gregory is the first African-American to serve on the 4th Circuit.  Finally, the junior member of the panel, who ended up writing the opinion for the court, was Henry F. Floyd, appointed by Barack Obama in 2011.

Floyd’s opinion followed closely on the path set by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in June when it struck down the Utah marriage ban.  Both courts, faced with prior circuit precedent holding that sexual orientation discrimination claims were subject to deferential rational basis review, avoided that route entirely, instead basing their decisions on the conclusion that the plaintiffs were being denied a fundamental right, which required the court to subject the state marriage ban to strict scrutiny.  Under the strict scrutiny test, a challenged law can only survive if it is narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest.  Most laws subjected to strict scrutiny are held unconstitutional.

Before getting to the main issue, however, Floyd contended briefly with the defendants’ contention that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the case, a make-weight argument of virtually no substance in these lawsuits, and that the Supreme Court had foreclosed this challenge by its 1972 ruling in Baker v. Nelson, a Minnesota case, that same-sex marriage did not present a “substantial federal question.”  Floyd pointed out that “every federal court to consider this issue since the Supreme Court decided U.S. v. Windsor [the DOMA case] has reached the same conclusion,” that the old case is no longer relevant.  He then cited the 10th Circuit’s ruling and ten U.S. District Court rulings.  He also quoted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s comment when this issue was raised during the oral argument in the Proposition 8 case: “Baker v. Nelson was 1971.  The Supreme Court hadn’t even decided that gender-based classifications get any kind of heightened scrutiny. . .  Same-sex intimate conduct was considered criminal in many states in 1971, so I don’t think we can extract much in Baker v. Nelson.”

Turning to the main issue, Floyd asserted that the plaintiffs in this case were not seeking a new constitutional right – a right of same-sex marriage – but rather an individual right to get married to the partner of their choice.  As such, the majority of the court saw this case as falling into the same category as Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ruling from 1967 that struck down Virginia’s ban on interracial marriages.  Floyd went through the various Supreme Court right-to-marry cases, finding a common thread supporting the plaintiffs’ contention.  “Over the decades,” he wrote, “the Supreme Court has demonstrated that the right to marry is an expansive liberty interest that may stretch to accommodate changing societal norms.”  After briefly describing the most important marriage precedents, he wrote, “These cases do not define the rights in question as ‘the right to interracial marriage,’ ‘the right of people owing child support to marry,’ and ‘the right of prison inmates to marry.’  Instead, they speak of a broad right to marry that is not circumscribed based on the characteristics of the individuals seeking to exercise that right.  The Supreme Court’s unwillingness to constrain the right to marry to certain subspecies of marriage meshes with its conclusion that the right to marry is a matter of ‘freedom of choice’ that ‘resides with the individual.’  If courts limited the right to marry to certain couplings, they would effectively create a list of legally preferred spouses, rendering the choice of whom to marry a hollow choice indeed.”

Dissenting, Judge Niemeyer vehemently disagreed.  “In reaching this conclusion,” he argued, “the majority has failed to conduct the necessary constitutional analysis.  Rather, it has simply declared syllogistically that because ‘marriage’ is a fundamental right protected by the Due Process Clause and ‘same-sex marriage’ is a form of marriage, Virginia’s laws declining to recognize same-sex marriage infringe the fundamental right to marry and are therefore unconstitutional. . .  This analysis is fundamentally flawed because it fails to take into account that the ‘marriage’ that has long been recognized by the Supreme Court as a fundamental right is distinct from the newly-proposed relationship of a ‘same-sex marriage.’  And this failure is even more pronounced by the majority’s acknowledgement that same-sex marriage is a new notion that has not been recognized ‘for most of our country’s history.’  Moreover, the majority fails to explain how this new notion became incorporated into the traditional definition of marriage except by linguistic manipulation.”  Niemeyer also suggested that the majority’s approach would lead to the argument that polygamous and incestuous marriages came within the fundamental right to marry.

The difference between the majority and the dissent over whether a fundamental right was involved was determinative of their outcomes.  Judge Floyd examined the five rationales advanced by the county clerks for maintaining a ban on same-sex marriage and found that none of them met the test of strict scrutiny.  Judge Niemeyer asserted confidently that several of these rationales would suffice to uphold the ban under the rational basis approach.  While disclaiming any view about whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry as a matter of public policy, Niemeyer asserted that this was a decision for the state to make, and its voters had made the decision by adopting their marriage amendment.

Judge Floyd’s discussion of the various state rationales followed now-familiar paths after two dozen prior marriage equality rulings by federal courts.  There was the usual quotation from Justice Scalia’s dissent in Windsor, the usual invocation of an amicus brief from various learned professional association’s pointing out the consensus of reputable authority on the parenting abilities of same-sex couples, and the usual observation that denying marriage to same-sex couples disadvantaged their children without in any way increasing the likelihood that different-sex couples would forgo procreating outside of marriage.

“We recognize that same-sex marriage makes some people deeply uncomfortable,” wrote Judge Floyd.  “However, inertia and apprehension are not legitimate bases for denying same-sex couples due process and equal protection of the laws.  Civil marriage is one of the cornerstones of our way of life.  It allows individuals to celebrate and publicly declare their intentions to form lifelong partnerships, which provide unparalleled intimacy, companionship, emotional support, and security.  The choice of whether and whom to marry is an intensely personal decision that alters the course of an individual’s life.  Denying same-sex couples this choice prohibits them from participating fully in our society, which is precisely the type of segregation that the Fourteenth Amendment cannot countenance.”

With his dissent, Judge Niemeyer became only the second federal judge to rule against a marriage equality claim since the ruling last December by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby that the Utah marriage ban was unconstitutional.  The first, of course, was the dissenting 10th Circuit judge, Paul Joseph Kelly, also appointed by the first President Bush a quarter century ago.  Every other federal judge to rule in a marriage equality case, regardless the party of the president who appointed her or him, has ruled for marriage equality.

There are fourteen active judges serving on the 4th Circuit, nine of whom were appointed either by Bill Clinton (counting Judge Gregory) or Barack Obama.  Faced with that line-up, it seems most likely that the clerks’ attorneys would by-pass a motion for en banc review and petition the Supreme Court directly, as the state of Utah has indicated that it will do in response to the 10th Circuit’s ruling.

4th Circuit Panel Holds Oral Argument in Virginia Marriage Cases

Posted on: May 13th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

A panel of three judges of the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit conducted oral arguments on May 13 in Bostic v. Schaefer, an appeal by two county clerks of a district court decision that held Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. The 4th Circuit had previously granted intervenor status on the appeal to the plaintiffs in another pending marriage case, Harris v. Rainey, so both pending federal court challenges to the Virginia ban were heard in this consolidated case.

However, since the state of Virginia has now lined up with the plaintiffs, agreeing that the ban is unconstitutional, the only parties appealing at this point are two county clerks, George E. Schaefer III and Michele McQuigg. They were represented in the arguments by David B. Oakley, a private attorney retained by Mr. Schaefer, and Austin Nimocks, an attorney from the anti-gay litigation firm “Alliance Defending Freedom,” representing Ms. McQuigg.

Former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, who represented the challengers to California Proposition 8 in the case that went to the Supreme Court last year, represents the plaintiffs from the Eastern District of Virginia, Timothy Bostic and Tony London, seeking the right to marry, and Carol Schall and Mary Townley, seeking recognition of their out-of-state marriage. James Esseks, Director of the LGBT Rights Project of the ACLU, represented a class of all same-sex couples in Virginia as certified by the Western District of Virginia district court, but their class representatives are also two same-sex couples, Joanne Harris and Jessica Duff, and Christy Berghoff and Victoria Kidd, also one married seeking recognition and the other seeking to marry.

Since the change in administration in Virginia led to a change in the state’s position, Virginia’s Solicitor General, Stuart A. Raphael, appeared on behalf of the state to urge the court to affirm the ruling by District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen that the Virginia ban violates the 14th Amendment.

Three-judge panels in the 4th Circuit are generated by a computer program to assure random selection, and this was a particularly diverse panel. Presiding as the most senior judge was Paul V. Niemeyer, appointed to the court by President George H.W. Bush. The circuit’s first African-American judge, Roger L. Gregory, was originally appointed to the court by Bill Clinton on a recess appointment late in his administration, and then was renominated by George W. Bush as part of a deal to break the deadlock on Bush’s first circuit court appointments. Finally, Judge Henry F. Floyd was appointed to the circuit court by President Barack Obama. Judge Floyd previously served on the district court by appointment of President George W. Bush, but before his judicial service had been a Democratic state legislator. Sorting out the political backgrounds of the appointees doesn’t get one very far with this panel.

One thing was sure from the outset, however, based on the questioning and comments from the bench. As much as he cautioned counsel and spectators from making assumptions based on his questions, it seemed very clear that Judge Niemeyer was extremely resistant to the idea that the Constitution might compel the state of Virginia to allow same-sex couples to marry. His questioning showed that he viewed the Supreme Court’s decision last June in U.S. v. Windsor, the DOMA case, as being heavily influenced by federalism. Even though Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s decision stated explicitly that the Court was deciding the case based on the 5th Amendment Due Process and Equal Protection requirements and not specifically on federalism concerns, Kennedy’s opinion devoted several pages to discussing the traditional role of the states in deciding who can marry and the traditional approach of the federal government to accepting as legal for federal purposes those marriages allowed by the states. Attorneys Oakley and Nimocks both pressed this view repeatedly: that Windsor was really a federalism case, and that it was narrowly focused on the question whether the federal government could refuse to recognize a marriage that a state had decided to recognize.

In the Windsor case, Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer had married in Canada. By the time Spyer passed away in 2009, New York appellate courts were recognizing same-sex marriages from out of state, even though New York did not pass its own marriage equality law until 2011. Windsor was suing for an estate tax refund, arguing that the Internal Revenue Service should have honored New York’s recognition of her marriage, and treat her as a surviving spouse exempt from estate taxes on her inheritance from her wife.

Nimocks hammered the point home by referring to the last paragraph of Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Supreme Court: “The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment. This opinion and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages.”

In other words, Nimocks argued, the Windsor case was specifically about the right of the states to decide who could marry and which marriages to recognize, and rejected the authority of the federal government to decree that certain marriages recognized by the state would not be recognized by the federal government. According to Nimocks, Windsor is essentially irrelevant to the question whether the 14th Amendment requires states to allow or recognize same-sex marriages.

Arguing on behalf of the plaintiff couples from Virginia, Olson, Esseks and Raphael emphasized how constitutional doctrine has developed over the course of Supreme Court decisions to the point where the district court’s conclusion in this case was, in Raphael’s words, “ineluctable.” Olson’s argument devolved into rapid back-and-forth statements with Judge Niemeyer, who seemed particularly combative in rejecting the idea that the union of a same-sex couple could be seen as “the same” as a different-sex couple. He insisted that the word “marriage” should not be used for such a couple, because same-sex couples have a “different relationship.” He conceded that the state might want to confer the rights and benefits long associated with marriage on same-sex couples, but stated that this was a decision for the state to make. Although Oakley had focused in his remarks on the significance of Virginia voters having supported the marriage amendment by a clear majority (56%, which is not all that impressive considering the margins by which such amendments were passed in some other states), Niemeyer’s comments didn’t seem to place particular weight on that. He insisted that it was not “particularly useful” to compare the “new relationship” of same-sex unions with heterosexual unions.

The other judge on the panel who gave rather clear signals of his sympathies was Judge Gregory, who particularly hammered Nimocks when he got up to make a rebuttal argument at the end of the allotted hour. Gregory continued questioning well past the flashing red light on the podium, although Judge Niemeyer good-humoredly said they could keep going as long as Gregory had questions.

Nimocks kept coming back to the argument that Virginia had an interest in ensuring that children benefited from “diverse parenting” from a father and a mother, and argued that some right to “genderless” marriage was not entitled to due process protection because it was not historically deeply rooted. Indeed, he appeared to be avoiding referring to a “right to marry,” instead saying over and over again that the right identified by the Supreme Court in the numerous decisions that Olson referred to was the “right to enter into the union of a husband and a wife.” Gregory asked Nimocks about how his concern for the welfare of children played out with the children being raised by same-sex couples, pointing out that same-sex couples can have children and raise children, and he characterized as “disingenuous” Nimock’s purported concern for the welfare of children. There seemed little doubt that Gregory was for affirmance.

So the swing vote on this panel will come from Judge Floyd, and he was relatively silent during the argument by comparison to his two colleagues. However, during Oakley’s opening argument, Floyd made a point of asking about whether the right to marry is an individual right of choice of a marital partner as opposed to a right of couples, and he also particularly focused in during Nimock’s argument about the justification for Virginia refusing to recognize same-sex marriages contracted out of state, especially when children were involved.

Esseks focused on the question of what level of scrutiny the court should use in evaluating Virginia’s ban, arguing that some form of heightened scrutiny should apply, requiring Virginia to justify its discriminatory ban. Niemeyer pushed back on this, pointing out that the Supreme Court has never specifically held that sexual orientation discrimination merits heightened scrutiny, and opining that Windsor is a “difficult opinion to read,” circling back to his opening depiction of it as a federalism case. Esseks responded with a description of the “triggers” for heightened review that the Supreme Court has responded to in various cases, and arguied that several of them applied to the Virginia marriage ban. Perhaps tipping his hand on where his thinking is going, Judge Floyd asked about the approach taken by the Boston-based U.S. Court of Appeals in its DOMA ruling, which involved “careful review” as opposed to “heightened scrutiny.” Ultimately, Esseks argued, the marriage ban would have to fall even under traditional rational basis review, because excluding same-sex couples from marriage didn’t advance any of the policy goals identified by the state.

Solicitor General Raphael provide a strong doctrinal argument, showing how the Supreme Court’s decision over the past several decades had rendered Baker v. Nelson, the Supreme Court’s 1972 dismissal of a same-sex marriage appeal, irrelevant. He also argued, as Olson had argued, that the marriage ban discriminated not only on the basis of sexual orientation but also on the basis of gender, and thus merited heightened scrutiny on that ground. “This is an explicit gender classification,” he said, and cited a prior opinion by Judge Niemeyer for the point that laws using gender classifications should be subjected to heightened scrutiny, which puts the burden on the state to prove that the classification substantially advances an important state interest. But, as Olson had argued, there is no evidence that banning same-sex marriage makes it more likely that different-sex couples will marry and have children.

Raphael also took on the federalism argument. Acknowledging that the Windsor decision devoted substantial attention to the traditional role of the states in defining marriage, he pointed out that the States remain bound by federal constitutional requirements. “The Bill of Rights trumps federalism,” he stated. Of course, this case is about the 14th Amendment, not the Bill of Rights, but his reference was, in the context of the Windsor case, to a provision of the Bill of Rights, the 5th Amendment, which places the same substantive limitations on the federal government that the 14th Amendment, adopted after the Civil War to assure full citizenship to the recently-freed slaves, places on the states.

The bottom line? As with last month’s 10th Circuit arguments in the Utah and Oklahoma cases, it appears that at least one member of the panel is predisposed to reverse the district court’s opinion, one member seems clearly disposed to affirm it, and the last is harder to read. However, as with the 10th Circuit, it appeared possible, from reading the tea leaves of questions and comments, that the “swing” voter might swing in favor of invalidating the ban.

However, as Judge Neimeyer said early on, the 4th Circuit is just a “way station” on the way to the Supreme Court. With the Supreme Court’s Utah stay and the subsequent stays placed by district courts and circuit courts on the pro-marriage equality rulings rendered thus far, it is clear that further extension of same-sex marriage rights through the courts will depend, ultimately, not on what the courts of appeals say, but what the Supreme Court says, probably sometime in 2015.