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!