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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.

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

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

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 On January 20, the Texas Supreme Court announced that it had “withdrawn” its September 2, 2016, order rejecting a petition to review a ruling by the state’s intermediate court of appeals that had implied that the U.S. Supreme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 Pidgeon v. Turner, 2016 WL 4938006 (Texas Supreme Ct., September 2, 2016), No. 16-0688, Order withdrawn, motion for rehearing granted, petition reinstated (Jan. 20, 2017).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, Donald Trump Can’t Repeal Marriage Equality

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Federal Court Issues Nationwide Injunction to Stop Federal Enforcement of Title IX in Gender Identity Cases

Posted on: August 22nd, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

A federal district judge in Wichita Falls, Texas, has issued a “nationwide preliminary injunction” against the Obama Administration’s enforcement of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act to require schools to allow transgender students to use restroom facilities consistent with their gender identity. Judge Reed O’Connor’s August 22 ruling, State of Texas v. United States of America, Civ. Action No. 7:16-cv-00054-O (N.D. Texas), is directed specifically at a “Dear Colleague” letter dated May 13, 2016, which the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Education (DOE) jointly sent to all the nation’s schools subject to Title IX, advising them of how the government was now interpreting federal statutes forbidding discrimination “because of sex.”  The letter advised recipients that failure to allow transgender students’ access to facilities consistent with their gender identity would violate Title IX, endangering their eligibility for funding from the DOE.

The May 13 letter was sent out shortly after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, had ruled in April that this interpretation by the Administration, previously stated in filings in a Virginia lawsuit, should be deferred to by the federal courts.  G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, 822 F.3d 709.    That lawsuit is about the right of Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy, to use boys’ restroom facilities at his Gloucester County, Virginia, high school.  The ACLU had filed the case on Grimm’s behalf after the school district adopted a rule forbidding students from using single-sex-designated facilities inconsistent with their “biological sex” as identified on their birth certificates, a rule similar to that adopted by North Carolina in its notorious H.B.2, which is itself now the subject of several lawsuits in the federal district courts in that state.  After the 4th Circuit ruled, the federal district judge hearing that case, Robert Doumar, issued a preliminary injunction requiring that Grimm be allowed access to the boys’ restrooms while the case is pending, and both Judge Doumar and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to stay that injunction.  However, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-3 to grant the school district’s request for a stay on August 3.  Judge O’Connor prominently mentioned the Supreme Court’s action in his opinion as helping to justify issuing his preliminary injunction, commenting that the case presents a question that the Supreme Court may be resolving this term.

Underlying this and related lawsuits is the Obama Administration’s determination that federal laws banning sex discrimination should be broadly interpreted to ban discrimination because of gender identity or sexual orientation. The Administration adopted this position officially in a series of rulings by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency charged with enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace.  This interpretation was in line with prior decisions by several federal circuit courts, ruling in cases that had been brought by individual transgender plaintiffs to challenge discrimination under the Violence against Women Act (VAWA), the Fair Credit Act (FCA), and Title VII.  These are all “remedial statutes” that traditionally should receive a liberal interpretation in order to achieve the policy goal of eliminating discrimination because of sex in areas subject to federal legislation.  Although the EEOC and other federal agencies had rejected this broad interpretation repeatedly from the 1960s onward, transgender people began to make progress in the courts after the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that sex-stereotyping by employers – disadvantaging employees because of their failure to comply with the employer’s stereotyped view of how men and women should act, groom and dress – could be considered evidence of sex discrimination, in the case of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins.  While some of these courts continue to reject the view that gender identity discrimination, as such, is automatically illegal under these statutes, they have applied the sex-stereotype theory to uphold lawsuits by individual transgender plaintiffs, especially those who are discharged in response to their announcement that they will be transitioning or when they begin their transition process by dressing in their desired gender.

The Education Department built on this growing body of court rulings, as well as on the EEOC’s rulings, when it became involved in cases where transgender students were litigating over restroom and locker room access. DOE first expressed this view formally in a letter it sent in connection with a lawsuit against an Illinois school district, participated in negotiating a settlement in that case under which the school district opened up restroom access, and then began to take a more active approach as more lawsuits emerged.  By earlier this year DOE and DOJ were ready to push the issue nationwide after the 4th Circuit’s ruling marked the first federal appellate acceptance of the argument that this was a reasonable interpretation of the existing regulation that allows school districts to provide separate facilities for boys and girls, so long as the facilities are comparable.  DOE/DOJ argue that because the regulation does not specifically state how to resolve access issues for transgender students, it is ambiguous on the point and thus susceptible to a reasonable interpretation that is consistent with the EEOC’s position on workplace discrimination and the rulings that have emerged from the federal courts under other sex discrimination statutes.  Under a Supreme Court precedent, agency interpretations of ambiguous regulations should receive deference from the courts if those interpretations are reasonable.

The May 13 letter provoked consternation among officials in many states, most prominently Texas, where Attorney General Ken Paxton took the lead in forming a coalition of about a dozen states to file this joint lawsuit challenging the DOE/DOJ position. Paxton aimed to bring the case in the federal court in Wichita Falls before Judge O’Connor, an appointee of George W. Bush who had previously issued a nationwide injunction against the Obama Administration’s policy of deferring deportation of undocumented residents without criminal records and had also ruled to block an Obama Administration interpretation of the Family and Medical Leave Act favoring family leave for gay employees to care for same-sex partners.  Paxton found a small school district in north Texas, Harrold Independent School District, which did not have any transgender students but nonetheless adopted a restrictive restroom access policy, to be a co-plaintiff in the case in order justify filing it in the Wichita Falls court.  Shortly after Paxton filed this case, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson put together another coalition of nine states to file a similar lawsuit in the federal district court in Nebraska early in July.

These cases rely heavily on an argument that was first proposed by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the anti-gay “Christian” public interest law firm, in a lawsuit it brought in May on behalf of some parents and students challenging the settlement of the Illinois case, and a “copycat” lawsuit filed by ADF in North Carolina. The plaintiffs argue that the DOE/DOJ position is not merely an “interpretation” of existing statutory and regulatory requirements under Title IX, but rather is a new “legislative rule,” imposing legal obligations and liabilities on school districts.  As such, they argue, it cannot simply be adopted in a “guidance” or “letter” but must go through the formal process for adopting new regulations under the Administrative Procedure Act. This would require the publication of the proposed rule in the Federal Register, after which interested parties could submit written comments, perhaps one or more public hearings being held around the country to receive more feedback from interested parties, and then publication of a final rule, which would be subject to judicial review in a case filed in a U.S. Court of Appeals.  (This is referred to as the “notice and comment” process.) Neither DOE nor any other agency that has adopted this new interpretation of “sex discrimination” has gone through this administrative rulemaking process.  Additionally, of course, the plaintiffs contend that this new rule is not a legitimate interpretation of Title IX, because Congress did not contemplate this application of the law when it was enacted in the 1970s.

In his August 22 ruling, O’Connor concluded that the plaintiffs met their burden to show that they would likely succeed on the merits of their claim, a necessary finding to support a preliminary injunction. As part of this ruling, he rejected the 4th Circuit’s conclusion that the existing statute and regulations are ambiguous and thus subject to administrative interpretation.  He found it clear based on legislative history that Congress was not contemplating outlawing gender identity discrimination when it passed sex discrimination laws, and that the existing regulation allowing schools to provide separate facilities for boys and girls was intended to protect student privacy against being exposed in circumstances of undress to students of the opposite sex.  In the absence of ambiguity, he found, existing precedents do not require the courts to defer to the agency’s interpretation.  He found that the other prerequisites for injunctive relief had been met, because he concluded that if the enforcement was not enjoined, school districts would be put to the burden of either changing their facilities access policies or potentially losing federal money.  He rejected the government’s argument that the lack of any imminent enforcement activity in the plaintiff states made this purely hypothetical.  After all, the federal government has affirmatively sued North Carolina to enjoin enforcement of the facilities access restrictions in H.B.2.

Much of O’Connor’s decision focuses on the question whether the plaintiffs had standing to challenge the DOE/DOJ guidance in a district court proceeding and whether the court had jurisdiction over the challenge. He found support for his ruling on these points in a recent decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals (which has appellate jurisdiction over cases from Texas) in a lawsuit that Texas brought against the EEOC, challenging a “guidance” about employer consideration of applicant arrest records in deciding whether to hire people.  Texas v. EEOC, 2016 WL 3524242.  Noting disparate enforcement of criminal laws against people of color, the EEOC took the position that reliance on arrest records has a disparate impact on people of color and thus potentially violates Title VII.  A 5th Circuit panel divided 2-1 in determining that the state had standing to maintain the lawsuit and that the district court had jurisdiction to rule on the case.   This suggests the likelihood that the Administration may have difficulty persuading the 5th Circuit to overrule O’Connor’s preliminary injunction on procedural grounds if it seeks to appeal the August 22 ruling.

The Administration argued in this case that any preliminary injunction by O’Connor should be narrowed geographically to the states in the 5th Circuit, even though co-plaintiffs included states in several other circuits, but O’Connor rejected this argument, agreeing with the plaintiffs that the injunction should be nationwide.  He emphasized the regulation allowing schools to have sex-segregated restroom facilities.  “As the separate facilities provision in Section 106.33 is permissive,” he wrote, “states that authorize schools to define sex to include gender identity for purposes of providing separate restrooms, locker rooms, showers, and other intimate facilities will not be impacted” by the injunction.  “Those states who do not want to be covered by this injunction can easily avoid doing so by state law that recognized the permissive nature” of the regulation.  “It therefore only applies to those states whose laws direct separation.  However, an injunction should not unnecessarily interfere with litigation currently pending before other federal courts on this subject regardless of state law.  As such, the parties should file a pleading describing those cases so the Court can appropriately narrow the scope if appropriate.”  This reference is directed mainly to the plethora of lawsuits pending in North Carolina, in which the federal government is contending that H.B.2 violates Title IX and Title VII.

Supreme Court Stays Injunction against Gloucester School District in Transgender Restroom Case

Posted on: August 15th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

On August 3 the U.S. Supreme Court granted an application by the Gloucester (Virginia) County School Board to stay a preliminary injunction that had been issued by U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar (E.D. Va.) on June 23; see 2016 WL 3581852. Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., 136 S.Ct. 2442 (No. 16A52), granting stay. The injunction ordered the school board to allow Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy, to use the boys’ restroom facilities at his high school while the trial court determined whether the school’s policy denying such access violates Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.  What was unusual about the Supreme Court’s action was the brief concurring statement from Justice Stephen Breyer explaining that he had voted to grant the application as a “courtesy.”  The Court indicated that Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan “would deny the application.”  With the vacancy created by the death of Justice Scalia last winter, the four conservative members of the Court – Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas – could not issue the stay, which requires a majority of the Court.

The court specified that the injunction was stayed “pending the timely filing and disposition of a petition for a writ of certiorari.” If the Court denies the writ (that is, refuses to review the lower court’s ruling on the merits), the injunction will go into effect.  If the Court votes to grant review, the stay would end when the Supreme Court issues its ruling on the merits of the appeal.

The lawsuit involves the hotly disputed question whether Title IX’s ban on discrimination “because of sex” by educational institutions prohibits a school from denying transgender students access to restroom and locker-room facilities consistent with their gender identity. It is undisputed that when Congress enacted Title IX several decades ago, there was no consideration or discussion about whether it would require such a result, and it was made clear in the legislative history and subsequent regulations and guidelines that Title IX did not prohibit educational institutes from designating access to such facilities as male-only or female-only. (Indeed, many states have statutory requirements that educational institutions provide separate restroom and locker-room facilities for males and females.)  Furthermore, a series of cases under the various sex discrimination laws over several decades had rejected claims that they extended to gender identity discrimination. As to Title IX, it was not until relatively recently, when teens began to identify as transgender and to begin transitioning while still in school, that the issue has heated up, and it was not until 2015 that the U.S. Department of Education, charged with interpreting and enforcing Title IX, took the position that the ban on discrimination “because of sex” included discrimination because of gender identity.

The Education Department’s interpretation, expressed first in a letter released in connection with litigation over restroom access in a suburban Illinois school district, was not entirely unprecedented, since several lower federal courts have ruled under a variety of sex discrimination laws that discrimination because of gender identity is form of sex discrimination. These include the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit, in a case under the Violence against Women Act (VAWA), the Boston-based 1st Circuit, in a case under the Fair Credit Act, the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit, in a case interpreting the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit, in a case under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 concerning employment discrimination.  However, challengers to the Education Department’s interpretation have argued that it is, in effect, a “changing of the rules” that can only be effected through a formal regulatory process under the Administrative Procedure Act, and not through a position letter in a pending case or an informal “guidance” memorandum.

In this Gloucester County case, Gavin Grimm had been using the boys’ facilities without incident after his gender transition until some complaints by parents to the school board resulted in a vote to adopt a policy requiring Grimm and any other transgender students to use either the facilities consistent with the gender indicated on their birth certificates (sometimes called “biological sex”) or to use single-user facilities designated for use by either sex, such as the restroom in the school nurse’s office. Since medical authorities will not perform “sex-reassignment surgery” on minors, it is impossible for a transgender youth to qualify for a change of gender designation on their birth certificate in most states, and some states rule out such changes altogether.  Grimm, who presents as male, sued under Title IX, claiming that the school district’s new access rule violated his rights under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause.  Judge Doumar initially rejected his Title IX claim and reserved judgement on the Equal Protection claim, disagreeing with the Education Department’s interpretation of the statute.  132 F.Supp.3d 736 (E.D.Va., Sep. 17, 2015). This ruling was reversed on April 19 by the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, 822 F.3d 709, which ruled that Doumar should have deferred to the Education Department’s interpretation of its own regulations and the statute.  The 4th Circuit subsequently voted to deny en banc review of this ruling, 824 F.3d 450 (May 31, 2016).  The 4th Circuit sent the case back to Judge Doumar, who then issued the preliminary injunction, and refused to stay it.  The 4th Circuit also refused to stay it, on July 12, 2016 WL 3743189.  The school district’s application to the Supreme Court indicated that it would be filing a petition for review of the 4th Circuit’s April 23 ruling, but in the meantime it wanted to preserve the “status quo” until there was a final ruling on the merits of the case.  Most pressingly, it wanted to ensure that its existing access rule would be in place when classes resumed at the high school.

At the heart of the disputes about Title IX restroom access cases is a fundamental disconnect between those who reject, based on their religious views or other beliefs, the idea that a transgender man is actually male or a transgender woman is actually female. (This is expressed in the controversial Mississippi HB 1523, which seeks to privilege those whose religious beliefs reject the concept of gender identity being discordant with anatomical sex at birth, by allowing individuals and businesses holding such beliefs to refuse to recognize transgender identity.)  Based on their political rhetoric and the arguments they make in court, it is clear that these critics believe that gender is fixed at birth and always coincides with anatomical sex, rejecting the whole idea of gender transition.  Thus, their slogan: No men in women’s restrooms, and no women in men’s restrooms.  Some premise this opposition on fears about safety, while others emphasize privacy, arguing that people have a “fundamental” constitutional privacy right not to confront transgender people in single-sex facilities.)  On the other side of the issue are those who accept the experience of transgender people and the findings of scientific researchers who have detected evidence that there is a genetic and/or biological basis for individuals’ strong feeling that they are misclassified.

This is, of course, not the only pending case placing in issue the Education Department’s interpretation of Title IX (which has also been endorsed by the Justice Department as it has represented the Education Department in court), or the broader question of whether federal sex discrimination laws are limited to instances of discrimination against somebody because of their “biological sex.” A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that circuit precedent required dismissal of a sexual orientation employment discrimination claim under Title VII, and the plaintiffs in that case will be seeking rehearing by the full 7th Circuit “en banc.”  There are also two appeals pending in the New York-based 2nd Circuit appealing dismissals of sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, as well as an appeal in the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit by an employer seeking reversal of a district court’s refusal to dismiss such a claim.

There are also multiple lawsuits pending in North Carolina and Mississippi, and cases involving multiple states as plaintiffs in Texas and Nebraska, challenging the federal government’s interpretations of “sex discrimination” in either or both of the sexual orientation and gender identity contexts. Early in August federal district judges held hearings in several of these cases where litigants were seeking preliminary injunctions, either to bar enforcement of state laws or to block enforcement of Title IX by the Education Department.  The district court in Mississippi has refused to stay its injunction against the Mississippi law, and has been backed up by the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.  Mississippi will seek a Supreme Court stay, and in light of the Gloucester County stay, seems likely to receive one.

Justice Breyer cited in support of his “courtesy” vote a 2008 case, Medellin v. Texas, where the four liberal members of the Court had voted to grant a stay of execution of a Mexican national while important issues concerning the consular treaty rights of foreign nationals being tried on criminal charges in U.S. courts were unsettled and no member of the conservative branch of the Court was willing to provide a fifth vote as a “courtesy” to put off the execution until the underlying legal issues could be resolved.  In this case, the four conservative members of the Court clearly believed that the school district should not have to comply with the injunction until the underlying legal issues were settled, and Breyer was willing to extend to them the courtesy that none of them would extend in the 2008 case!

Federal Judge in Puerto Rico Claims Obergefell v. Hodges Does Not Apply There

Posted on: March 9th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

In an astonishing departure from established precedents, U.S. District Judge Juan M. Perez-Gimenez of the U.S. District Court in Puerto Rico, who had dismissed a marriage equality lawsuit on October 21, 2014, has issued a new decision on March 8, 2016, Vidal v. Garcia-Padilla, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 29651, asserting that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on June 26, 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, that the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right of same-sex couples to marry in the United States, does not necessarily apply to Puerto Rico.

Lambda Legal represents the plaintiffs in that marriage equality case.  Lambda appealed the court’s 2014 ruling to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over federal cases arising in Puerto Rico.  That court held up ruling on the appeal until after the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell.  On July 8, 2015, the 1st Circuit vacated Judge Perez-Gimenez’s decision and sent the case back to the district court “for further consideration in light of Obergefell v. Hodges.”  In its brief order, the 1st Circuit also stated that it “agrees with the parties’ joint position that the ban [on same-sex marriage] is unconstitutional.”  A week later, the parties filed a “Joint Motion for Entry of Judgment” with the district court, asking for a declaration that Puerto Rico’s statutory ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, and an injunction ordering the commonwealth government not to enforce the ban.

In a  footnote to his opinion, Judge Perez-Gimenez observed that Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla had signed an Executive Order “just hours after the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell” directing Puerto Rico government officials to comply with that ruling, an action that provoked some members of the Puerto Rico legislature to file a lawsuit in the local courts challenging his action.  That case has apparently gone nowhere, and the government of Puerto Rico has been issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples and recognizing their marriages performed elsewhere.

Perez-Gimenez explained that in Obergefell the Supreme Court invoked the 14th Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses to hold that the same-sex marriage bans in the four states within the jurisdiction of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals (Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee) were unconstitutional because they deprived same-sex couples of a fundamental right to marry, thus abridging their liberty and denying equal protection of the laws.  He also noted that some lower federal courts have acknowledged that Obergefell v. Hodges was technically ruling on the state constitutions and laws of those four states, and thus had not automatically mooted cases pending in the 5th, 8th and 11th Circuit Courts of Appeals involving same-sex marriage bans in other states, although those courts quickly issued rulings applying Obergefell as a precedent to the marriage equality cases arising from states under their jurisdiction.

More significantly, Judge Perez-Gimenez claimed that because Puerto Rico is neither a “state” nor an “incorporated territory,” but rather an “unincorporated territory” with extensive self-government rights under a federal statute making it a “commonwealth,” there is some question whether the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell is a binding precedent in Puerto Rico.  He pointed out, that the 14th Amendment provides expressly that “no state” may deprive a person of due process or equal protection, and that because Puerto Rico is not a state, the 14th Amendment’s applicability is not clear.  He cited a variety of older Supreme Court decisions making the general point that all provisions of the U.S. Constitution do not necessarily apply to Puerto Rico in all circumstances.

What he neglected to cite, however, was a case pointed out by Joshua Block, an ACLU attorney who spoke with Chris Geidner of BuzzFeed.com shortly after Perez-Gimenez issue his ruling: a 1976 Supreme Court decision, Examining Board of Engineers v. Flores de Otero, 426 U.S. 572 (1976), in which the Court stated, in an opinion by Justice Harry Blackmun, “The Court’s decisions respecting the rights of the inhabitants of Puerto Rico have been neither unambiguous nor exactly uniform.  The nature of this country’s relationship to Puerto Rico was vigorously debated within the Court as well as within the Congress.  It is clear now, however, that the protections accorded either by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment or the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment apply to residents of Puerto Rico.”

In that case, the Court was considering the constitutionality of a local Puerto Rican statute imposing a citizenship requirement before somebody could be licensed to practice as a civil engineer.  The Court held that the requirement violated equal protection, based on its precedents interpreting both the 5th and 14th Amendments, under which the Court imposes “strict scrutiny” on federal or state laws that discriminate based on alienage.  That is, the government must have a compelling justification before it can deny a right or benefit to somebody because they are not a U.S. citizen.  In a prior case, Calero-Toledo v. Pearson Yacht Leasing Co., 416 U.S. 663 (1974), the Court had specifically held that the due process requirements of the 5th and 14th Amendment also applied to Puerto Rico, limiting the right of the government to restrict the rights of property-owners.

Thus, Judge Perez-Gimenez’s insistence that the Supreme Court’s holding concerning the rights of same-sex couples under the 14th Amendment does not apply to persons present in Puerto Rico appears contrary to a Supreme Court precedent.

Nonetheless, Perez-Gimenez, without acknowledging these Supreme Court decisions, held that “the right to same-sex marriage in Puerto Rico requires: (a) further judicial expression by the U.S. Supreme Court; or (b) the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico; (c) incorporation through legislation enacted by Congress, in the exercise of the powers conferred by the Territorial Clause; or (d) by virtue of any act or statute adopted by the Puerto Rico Legislature that amends or repeals Article 68 [the local law banning same-sex marriage].”

Had there been any doubt that the Obergefell ruling applies to Puerto Rico, the 1st Circuit would have expressed that doubt as part of its consideration of the appeal from Perez-Gimenez’s prior ruling in the case.  Instead, that court expressly stated its agreement with the joint position stated by the parties in that case that the Puerto Rico ban was unconstitutional.  Lambda Legal will promptly appeal this ruling to the 1st Circuit.  In the meantime, presumably the governor’s executive order remains in effect.

Utah Files Petition for Supreme Court Review of Marriage Equality Ruling

Posted on: August 5th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

Utah Governor Gary Herbert and Attorney General Sean Reyes filed their petition for certiorari with the United States Supreme Court on August 5, seeking review of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in Kitchen v. Herbert.  At the Supreme Court, the case would be called Herbert v. Kitchen.  The 10th Circuit ruled on June 25 that Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage violated the 14th Amendment by depriving same-sex couples of the fundamental right to marry without sufficient justification.

Utah’s counsel of record, Gene C. Schaerr and John J. Bursch, have put together a certiorari petition that is well-calculated to persuade the Court that they should take the case.  They have position this as a federalism case.  Their main “pitch” to the Court is that the task of defining marriage is left under our constitutional scheme to the states, and that federal courts should not dictate how that term is to be defined.  This is reflected in their wording of the question presented to the Court: “Whether the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits a state from defining or recognizing marriage only as the legal union between a man and a woman.”

They build on Justice Samuel Alito’s dissenting opinion in U.S. v. Windsor, in which he posited that there are essentially two conceptions of marriage in the United States today, an adult-centric version and a child-centric version, and that the question which of these concepts to embrace should be left to the political processes of the states under a constitutional scheme which has traditionally left the details of domestic relations law to the states.  They come back numerous times to Justice Anthony Kennedy’s statements in his opinion for the Court in Windsor that the definition of marriage has traditionally been left to the states, and that for almost all of our history that definition has limited marriage to the union of a man and a woman, and they emphasize the Court’s holding in Windsor that the constitutional flaw in Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act was that Congress had failed to defer to state decisions to allow or recognize same-sex marriages.

In other words, this Petition does not demonize gay people or employ homophobic language.  It is carefully written to avoid comments that might be deemed hostile, and emphasizes that both the trial judge in this case, Robert Shelby, and the 10th Circuit panel, had specifically found no evidence that Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage was enacted out of animus against gay people.  Rather, they argue, Utah’s ban, most recently enacted as a constitutional amendment a decade ago, was a decision by the people of the state to embrace a child-centric concept of marriage, under which the procreative potential of different-sex marriage was its defining feature and linking children with their biological parents the main purpose.

The purpose of a petition for certiorari is to persuade the Court that there is an important federal question that requires national resolution.  This is an easy argument to make in light of the current litigation situation.  They list all the states in which marriage equality litigation is pending — a very impressive list of 32 states — and also emphasize that hundreds of same-sex couples were married in several of these states when trial courts did not stay their rulings and some time elapsed until appellate courts could restore the “status quo” by staying the decisions pending appeal.  As a result, there is collateral litigation about the validity of those marriages that would be resolved by a ruling on the merits by the Court.

They point out that the Court has already decided recently that marriage equality is a decision requiring its attention, when it granted certiorari in December 2012 in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Proposition 8 case from the 9th Circuit.  Although the Court ultimately decided that the petitioners’ standing in that case precluded a decision on the merits, it had granted certiorari on the same question presented in this case, so it had already decided recently that a federal court decision striking down a state ban on same-sex marriage presented a pressing federal question.  They also note that the Utah litigation has already generated two stays from the Supreme Court: first, staying Judge Shelby’s decision in January 2014, and then more recently staying Judge Kimball’s decision in Evans v. Herbert concerning the validity of the marriages performed during the interval between Judge Shelby’s decision and the Supreme Court’s stay of that decision.  In issuing a stay, the Court makes an initial determination that the case is likely to be worthy of Supreme Court review, with a possibility that it would be reversed.  Thus, they argue, the Court has already decided, preliminarily, that this is a case that likely merits review.

Finally, they argue that there is a split of authority that needs resolution by the Court.  They note Baker v. Nelson, the Supreme Court’s determination in 1972 that the Minnesota Supreme Court’s rejection of a 14th Amendment claim for marriage equality did not present a substantial federal question, even in light of the Court’s recent ruling against anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia. They contend that Baker v. Nelson was still binding and that the 10th Circuit erred in failing to follow that precedent.  They argue that the method used by the 10th Circuit to reach its decision that a fundamental right is involved in this case violates the methodology approved by the Court in Washington v. Glucksberg in 1997, and that it violates the Court’s statement last year in U.S. v. Windsor that the federal government must defer to the states in defining marriage.  Finally, they note a split from the 8th Circuit’s pre-Windsor ruling in Citizens for Equal Protection v. Bruning, which had rejected an equal protection challenge to a same-sex marriage ban in a somewhat different context.

They argue that this case, the first in the door from the current wave of marriage equality litigation, is also the “ideal vehicle” for the Court to use in deciding the marriage equality question.  First, the Court is already familiar with this litigation from considering and granting two stay petitions.  Second, the petitioners are vigorous proponents of the child-centric marriage concept.  Third, the findings of the courts below that Utah did not act out of animus left the Court free to focus on the “pure legal question” rather than being distracted by the animus findings in some of the other pending marriage equality cases.  Fourth, they argue that the courts below were “unusually clear in embracing the adult-centric concept as the basis of their holdings that the fundamental right to marriage includes the right to marry someone of the same sex,” thus highlighting the clash of philosophy that is at stake.  Fifth, they note that unlike some of the other marriage equality cases now pending, this one presents both the issues of the right to marry and of recognition of out-of-state marriages, so it would provide a vehicle to address both issues in one case.  Sixth, there are no standing issues to prevent the Court from reaching the merits.  Seventh, “there is no need to let the issue percolate even more” in light of the litigation history and the U.S. Attorney General’s announcement that he will support the plaintiffs when the Court next takes up the marriage equality issue.  Finally, they emphasized that counsel on both sides of the case “are experienced and capable.”  (Counsel for the Respondents include Peggy Tomsic, who presented a brilliant oral argument at the 10th Circuit, and attorneys from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, whose Legal Director, Shannon Minter, triumphed in the oral argument on marriage equality before the California Supreme Court back in 2008.)

“The harm in waiting is significant,” they argue, “regardless of which side prevails.  Either thousands of couples are being denied their constitutional right to marry, or millions of voters are being disenfranchised of their fundamental right to retain the definition of marriage that has existed since before the People ratified the Constitution.  This Court should grant the petition and answer, once and for all, the important question presented.”

They close with a strong summary of their argument on the merits:  “Promoting marriage as an institution designed to honor every child’s fundamental right to know and be raised by a mother and father does not ban any other type of relationship.  But rewriting the Constitution to impose the Tenth Circuit’s marriage definition on every single State has consequences.  It communicates that the marriage institution is more about adults than children.  It teaches that mothers and fathers are interchangeable and therefore expendable.  And it instills an incentive that citizens seeking social change should use the courts, rather than the democratic process, to achieve it.  For all these reasons, the Court should grant Utah’s petition and reverse the Tenth Circuit.”

Throughout the petition Schaerr and Bursch make arguments and use vocabulary that could be sharply contested by marriage equality proponents.  Their goal in this document, however, is primarily to persuade the Court to take their case, and that should not be difficult in light of the prior certiorari grant in the Proposition 8 case.  One suspects that the Plaintiffs’ response to the Petition will not differ from the Petitioners on that primary goal, since they want a Supreme Court merits ruling that will finally lift the stay and allow same-sex marriages in Utah, but they will sharply counter many of the assertions concerning the merits.

To this reader, the suggestion by Justice Alito, adopted as a central point in this Petition, that there are two conceptions of marriage, adult-centric or child-centric, is absurd.  A strict binary is a distortion of reality and of the stakes in this litigation.  The Petitioners argue as if the decision to deny marriage to same-sex couples has no serious consequences for the children they are raising., and they seek to minimize any such consequence by asserting that relatively few same-sex couples raise children by comparison to opposite-sex couples, which is demographically faulty.  They contradict themselves at numerous points, but most seriously in suggesting that allowing same-sex couples to marry is all about the adults and ignores the interests of their children.  They also argue as if there is not a decade of experience with same-sex marriage in Massachusetts that can serve to challenge their speculations about the impact that allowing same-sex marriage would have on heterosexuals in terms of “signaling” that heterosexual marriage is not important or desirable to provide a setting for raising children.  (There is similarly a decade of experience from Canada and the Netherlands, if that be deemed relevant, as it should be.)  If this is really all about the children, as they argue, then — as virtually all the courts that have considered the matter over the past year have concluded — the interests of the children being raised by same-sex couples must be taken into account, as Justice Kennedy suggested during the oral argument in Hollingsworth v. Perry and forcefully asserted in the Windsor opinion.  They similarly misrepresent the Supreme Court’s marriage precedents by the sin of omission.  They suggest that the Supreme Court’s view of marriage as a constitutional right has been the child-centric view, when in fact the Court has specifically found a constitutional right to marry to be present in the case of prisoners who are not entitled to conjugal visits — a case in which the Court provided a list of adult-centric reasons for finding that right to trump the state’s contrary arguments.

But my reflections now go to the merits; for now the merits are secondary to the question whether the Court will take the case.  This Petition makes a very strong pitch, and it is difficult to believe that it would not attract the votes of at least the four members of the Court necessary to grant review.  By the time they decide whether to grant review, they will also have petitions on file from court clerks in Oklahoma and Virginia, and, depending how quickly the 6th Circuit takes action in the cases being argued on August 6, perhaps from as many as four other states.   The possibility that the Court would put off taking a marriage equality case until next term seems remote.

 

Supreme Court Blocks Utah Marriages Pending 10th Circuit Decision

Posted on: January 6th, 2014 by Art Leonard 2 Comments

This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the following order:

MONDAY, JANUARY 6, 2014
ORDER IN PENDING CASE
13A687 HERBERT, GOV. OF UT, ET AL. V. KITCHEN, DEREK, ET AL.
The application for stay presented to Justice Sotomayor and
by her referred to the Court is granted. The permanent
injunction issued by the United States District Court for the
District of Utah, case No. 2:13-cv-217, on December 20, 2013, is
stayed pending final disposition of the appeal by the United
States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

This says everything but leaves many questions. First, Justice Sotomayor referred the application for the stay to the full Court, as most observers expected her to do, and that decision on her part really needs no explanation. Second, the Court granted the application, to the extent of holding that the federal district court’s injunction is stayed until “final disposition of the appeal by the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.” The Court, as is normal practice, did not give any explanation as to how this application met the criteria it has used in the past to determine whether a trial court ruling in a constitutional case should be stayed by the Supreme Court when both the trial court and the court of appeals have denied the same application. When the Supreme Court is not unanimous on one of these stay applications, there is occasionally a dissenting opinion by one or more of the Justices, which can shed some light on the discussion, if any, between the justices, but there is no indication of that.

So one can at best speculate as to why this action was taken. In my previous discussion after the opposing memo was filed by the plaintiffs, I suggested that if the Court decides this based on the legal criteria it had used in the past, the stay would be denied, but if they decided it based on realpolitik, the stay would be granted. Is anybody surprised which governed here? My thinking on this is also affected by the discussion I heard yesterday at the AALS Section on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity issues program at the AALS annual meeting in New York. At least one prominent legal scholar read the Windsor case as not really signaling a readiness by the Court to embrace marriage equality as a 14th Amendment requirement on the states. Even though Justice Kennedy’s opinion in Windsor (the DOMA case) spoke a lot about the federal government’s obligation to respect the dignity of same-sex married couples by not discriminating against them in determining federal rights and obligations, this scholar emphasized that the court spoke of that dignity as something that had been conferred by the state when it opened up marriage to same-sex couples, and that the opinion had several references to the traditional role of the state in defining marriage. If that view, drawn from a close reading of Kennedy’s decision by a legal scholar who is, at least politically, disposed to support marriage equality, accurately describes the limits of Kennedy’s support for marriage equality, then perhaps the Court concluded that the state of Utah had shown that its chances of prevailing on the merits of the appeal are decent enough to support staying the injunction pending a final appellate ruling in the case.

The important and immediate question this brief Order does not address is: What is the status of the approximately 1,300 same-sex marriages that were licensed and performed in Utah between December 20 and January 3? Are they presumed to be valid and entitled to be treated as valid by the federal and state and local governments during this interim period of the appeal? This is an immensely practical question, because we are about to launch into tax filing season for the 2013 tax year, and those couples who married by the end of business on Dec. 31 need to know which tax status they use, single or married, in filing their federal and state income tax returns and, possibly, estate tax returns, if somebody who married in 2013 has already passed away before the end of that year. Those who married out of state already know that they must file their federal returns for 2013 as “married,” since the IRS is using the place of celebration rule to determine tax filing status, but they don’t necessary know how to file their Utah state returns. Those who married in Utah over recent weeks need to be advised as to both issues. Similarly, there are likely to be questions arising over the next few months until the 10th Circuit rules as to whether those already married will be treated as married by the federal and state governments for a range of issues, including Social Security survivor benefits, for example, Family and Medical Leave Act benefits, and so forth. As for state law, the administration of Gov. Herbert had advised state agencies that marriages contracted over the past few weeks should be fully recognized for such things as spousal benefits for state employees. Whether that remains true for marriages performed prior to the issuance of the stay needs to be clarified quickly.

The Obama Administration needs to quickly address the issue of federal recognition for the existing marriages, and the Utah government should also issue clarifying statements as soon as possible.

Utah Plaintiffs Strongly Counter State’s Supreme Court Stay Application in Marriage Equality Case

Posted on: January 4th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

Today the attorneys for the plaintiffs in Kitchen v. Herbert, the Utah marriage equality case, filed their opposition with the Supreme Court to the state’s application for a stay of the trial court ruling.

Under the trial court ruling, issued on Dec. 20, same-sex marriages began happening in Utah that date.  On December 23, the trial judge, Robert Shelby, denied the state’s motion to stay his ruling pending appeal.  Two days later, a panel of two 10th Circuit judges rejected the state’s request to stay the ruling, finding a stay was “not warranted” under the rules applied by the Circuit to such requests.

A week later, on December 31, the state filed an application with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court Justice assigned to hear applications out of the 10th Circuit, seeking a stay.  The state argued that the district court’s decision was an “affront” to the dignity of the state, imposing irreparable harm, and that under Supreme Court precedents they were entitled to a stay if there was a fair possibility that they would win in their appeal on the merits and that the Supreme Court was likely to hear the case if the state lost its appeal in the 10th Circuit.

The Memorandum in Opposition filed today by Magleby & Greenwood, P.C., the Salt Lake City firm representing the plaintiffs, blows the state’s arguments out of the water, in the opinion of this writer.  They argue persuasively that the state’s Application mischaracterized the Supreme Court’s standard for a stay in this kind of situation, where an appeal is pending before the court of appeals, which has refused to stay the trial court’s order, and the court of appeals has expedited consideration of the state’s appeal.  They show that the Supreme Court imposes a very high burden on a party requesting a stay under such circumstances.  It’s not enough to show that the state might win their appeal.  They have to show that the court of appeal’s rejection of their request for a stay was “demonstrably wrong”.   They also devote a large part of the memorandum to showing how the district court’s decision was consistent with the developing case law under the 14th Amendment, and thus likely to be upheld on appeal by the 10th Circuit.  Also, noting the plethora of other marriage equality cases now under way around the country (including, most notably, the Nevada case now pending before the 9th Circuit), they point out that it is entirely speculative that the Supreme Court will review this case if the state loses its appeal in the 10th Circuit.  It is just as likely that one of the other cases will be the one to go up to the Supreme Court, if indeed the Court decides to grant review.  They show that the state’s argument that the Supreme Court will surely review a lower court decision striking down a state law as unconstitutional was based on old cases that have been superseded by a statute enacted by Congress rejecting the idea that the Supreme Court should automatically review lower court decisions striking down state laws.

They also show that the state misrepresented the academic literature on parenting by gay couples, calling Utah’s characterization as “false” — you can’t get more confrontational than that.

If the Supreme Court is going to decide this application based on “the law,” I think they will deny the stay.  If they treat this as more of a political issue, it is more difficult to predict, but the plaintiff’s opposition memorandum strikes me as more persuasive than the Application filed by the state.   Justice Sotomayor could decide the application on her own, or she could refer it to the full Court.

Utah Applies for Stay of Marriage Equality Ruling

Posted on: December 31st, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Late this afternoon the state of Utah petitioned the Supreme Court to stay the ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby in the marriage equality case, Kitchen v. Herbert.  The Petition is addressed to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is assigned to hear such petitions emanating from the states in the 10th Circuit.  Last week, a pair of 10th Circuit judges, sitting as a panel to hear such petitions, supported Judge Shelby’s decision to deny a stay.

The state of Utah was caught by this decision without an attorney general, the incumbent having resigned in some sort of scandal earlier in December, so “Acting” Attorney Generals were caught in the middle of a political storm when Judge Shelby’s decision was handed down on Friday, Dec. 20.  Somebody slipped up in that office by not including in their summary judgement motion a request for a stay in case the court granted the plaintiff’s cross-motion.  As a result, Judge Shelby didn’t grant a stay, and rebuffed an attempt by the state to get one through a simple telephone call a few hours after the decision was issued.  Instead, he responded, with careful regard for due process of law, that they would have to file a petition and give the plaintiffs an opportunity to respond.  After considering the papers that were filed and oral argument on Monday, December 23, Shelby denied the stay, ultimately issuing a lengthy opinion justifying his decision.  Then the 10th Circuit motions panel unanimously affirmed Shelby, finding that a stay was not warranted.

The state hired an eminent Idaho litigator, Monte Stewart, and his firm, and the new Attorney General, Sean Reyes, was sworn in yesterday.  So now the new team of Stewart and Reyes, a different crew from those who fell short last week, has taken the reigns, and the Petition filed with the Supreme Court is expertly put together.  I’m in the midst of writing the January issue of Lesbian/Gay Law Notes, and have just composed the following about the stay petition:

“Stewart’s petition argued that the case meets the Supreme Court’s criteria for a stay.  He argued that it is likely that the Supreme Court would grant review to a 10th Circuit decision affirming Shelby’s opinion, likely that the full Court would reverse the 10th Circuit, and that failure to stay the ruling would cause irreparable injury to the state.  On the first point, he’s undoubtedly correct.  A 10th Circuit decision affirming Shelby would probably draw at least four votes on the Court for certiorari, all that is needed for a grant.  The second point is questionable, and depends heavily on trying to repurpose the operative portions of Justice Kennedy’s Windsor decision as a federalism ruling, as it was hopefully characterized in his dissent by the Chief Justice but curtly disputed in his dissent by Justice Scalia.  But all Stewart has to do to win a stay is to persuade a majority of the Court that it is possible that a 10th Circuit decision would be reversed.  His argument on irreparable injury is highly contentious, suggesting that Utah suffers a dignitary injury when a court orders it to let same-sex couples marry against the political will of the state, and arguing that the plaintiffs suffer no injury because they are not being deprived of an “established” constitutional right.  In this, of course, he is arguing that the case is not about the right to marry, but rather about a right of “same-sex marriage.”  This is the same conceptual error that the Supreme Court embraced in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), and that the majority in Lawrence v. Texas (2003) identified as a fatal flaw in the earlier case.”

It is impossible to predict what will happen with this.  Now the ball is in the plaintiffs’ counsel’s court, and one hopes they quickly come up with a persuasive response.  Somebody is going to be working furiously over the New Year holiday.  It is likely that this petition will be referred by Justice Sotomayor to the full Court, but probably not until later in the week.

P.S. – After writing this I learned that Justice Sotomayor has given plaintiffs’ counsel until noon Friday, January 3, to respond.  So there will be no decision on the Petition until the end of the week, if then.