9th Circuit Refuses to Reconsider “Conversion Therapy” Case, Denying En Banc Review

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, has rejected a petition for it to reconsider a decision it issued in August 2013, which had rejected a constitutional challenge to a California law that prohibits licensed mental health professionals from engaging in “sexual orientation change efforts,” sometimes called “conversion therapy,” with patients under age 18.

The petition, filed by the losing parties, asked that the three-judge panel reconsider its ruling or that the Circuit grant an en banc hearing, which would involve 11 judges. The petition was circulated to all of the two dozen judges of the circuit, but failed to win a majority vote. Only three judges voted to grant en banc review.

Two district judges had issued conflicting decisions on the constitutionality challenge, and the circuit had affirmed the judge who found that the measure is constitutional. The 9th Circuit held that the measure, “as a regulation of professional conduct, does not violate the free speech rights of SOCE practitioners or minor patients, is neither vague nor overbroad, and does not violate the parents’ fundamental rights.”

Writing for himself and Judges Bea and Ikuta, Circuit Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain released a substantial dissenting opinion, challenging the court’s conclusion that First Amendment problems with the ban could be avoided by characterizing it as a regulation of “conduct” or “medical practice” rather than a regulation of speech. He asserted that the panel decision “contravenes recent Supreme Court precedent, ignores established free speech doctrine, misreads our cases, and thus insulates from First Amendment scrutiny California’s prohibition – in the guise of a professional regulation – of politically unpopular expression.”

O’Scannlain pointed to Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, 130 S. Ct. 2705 (2010), which challenged a federal statute forbidding “material support” to terrorist organizations. The challengers argued that the law was unconstitutional as applied to purely verbal communication. Wrote O’Scannlain, “the Court rejected the government’s argument that the statute only punished ‘conduct’; for, in this situation, the ‘conduct triggering coverage under the statute consists of communicating a message.’” O’Scannlain drew from this the conclusion that “the government’s ipse dixit cannot transform ‘speech’ into ‘conduct’ that it may more freely regulate,” and he rebutted the panel decision’s arguments seeking to distinguish that case. He also asserted that “federal courts have never recognized a freestanding exception to the First Amendment for state professional regulations” using a conduct/speech distinction.

The amended panel decision released on January 29 reiterates the earlier decision’s distinction between “therapeutic speech” and “expressive speech,” insisting that “it is well recognized that a state enjoys considerable latitude to regulate the conduct of its licensed health care professionals in administering treatment.” The panel distinguished the Humanitarian Law Project case as an attempt by Congress to regulate “political speech by ordinary citizens.”

The heat of the dissent underlines that this is a “culture wars” case, and the plaintiffs, ardent proponents of so-called “conversion therapy,” are likely to file a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court. The plaintiffs challenging the statute were represented in the 9th Circuit by Dean Matt Staver of Liberty University Law School on behalf of Liberty Counsel, a right-wing litigation group associated with Liberty University, and by Kevin Snider for the conservative Pacific Justice Institute. Both of those organizations have a track-record of opposing gay rights measures in the courts.

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