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Posts Tagged ‘4th Circuit Court of Appeals’

Federal Court Dismisses Challenge to Maryland Law Against Conversion Therapy for Minors

Posted on: September 24th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

On September 20, U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow of the federal district court in Maryland granted that state’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Liberty Counsel on behalf of a conversion therapy practitioner who was challenging the state’s recently enacted law that provides that “a mental health or child care practitioner may not engage in conversion therapy with an individual who is a minor.” The ban is enforceable  through the professional licensing process enforced by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.  The named defendants are Governor Larry Hogan and Attorney General Brian Frosh.  The case is Doyle v. Hogan, 2019 WL 4573382, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 160709 (D. Md., Sept. 20, 2019).

The plaintiff, Christopher Doyle, argued that the law violates his right to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion, seeking a preliminary injunction against the operation of the law while the litigation proceeds.  Having decided to dismiss the case, however, Judge Chasanow also denied the motion for preliminary relief as moot.  Liberty Counsel immediately announced an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which has yet to rule on a constitutional challenge against a conversion therapy ban.

Several U.S. Circuit courts have rejected similar challenges.  The New Jersey statute, signed into law by Governor Chris Christie, was upheld by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the state has the power to regulate “professional speech” as long as there was a rational basis for the regulation.  King v. Governor of New Jersey, 767 F. 3d 216 (3rd Cir. 2014). The California statute, signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, was upheld by the 9th Circuit, which characterized it is a regulation of professional conduct with only an incidental effect on speech, and thus not subject to heightened scrutiny by the court.  Pickup v. Brown, 740 F.3d 1208 (9th Cir. 2015).  Liberty Counsel is also appealing a similar ruling by a federal court in Florida to the 11th Circuit.

The task of protecting statutory bans on conversion therapy against such constitutional challenges was complicated in June 2018 when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the Court in a 5-4 decision involving a California law imposing certain notice requirements on licensed and unlicensed pregnancy-related clinics, wrote disparagingly of the 3rd and 9th Circuit conversion therapy opinions.  National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, 138 S. Ct. 2361 (2018). The California statute required the clinics to post notices advising customers about pregnancy-related services, including family planning and abortion, that are available from the state, and also required non-licensed clinics to post notices stating that they were not licensed by the State of California.  The clinics protested that the statute imposed a content-based compelled speech obligation that violated their free speech rights and was subject to “strict scrutiny.” Such speech regulations rarely survive a strict scrutiny constitutional challenge.

The Supreme Court voted 5-4 to reverse a decision by the 9th Circuit, which had ruled that the notices constituted “professional speech” that was not subject to “strict scrutiny.”  In so doing, Justice Thomas rejected the idea that there is a separate category of “professional speech” that the government is free to regulate.  He asserted that “this Court has not recognized ‘professional speech’ as a separate category of speech.  Speech is not unprotected merely because it is uttered by ‘professionals.’”

“Some Court of Appeals have recognized ‘professional speech’ as a separate category of speech that is subject to different rules,” Thomas observed, citing among examples the 3rd Circuit and 9th Circuit conversion therapy cases.  “These courts define ‘professionals’ as individuals who provide personalized services to clients and who are subject to ‘a generally applicable licensing and regulatory regime.’ ‘Professional speech’ is then defined as any speech by these individuals that is based on ‘[their] expert knowledge and judgment,’ or that is ‘within the confines of [the] professional relationship,’” this time quoting from the 3rd Circuit and 9th Circuit opinions.  “So defined, these courts except professional speech from the rule that content-based regulations of speech are subject to strict scrutiny,” again citing the 3rd and 9th Circuit cases.

After reiterating that the Supreme Court has not recognized a category of “professional speech,” Thomas does concede that there are some circumstances where the court has applied “more deferential review” to “some laws that require professionals to disclose factual, noncontroversial information in their ‘commercial speech,” and that “States may regulate professional conduct, even though that conduct incidentally involves speech.”  But, the Court concluded, neither of those exceptions applied to the clinic notice statute.

As a result of Justice Thomas’s comments about the 3rd and 9th Circuit cases, when those opinions are examined on legal research databases such as Westlaw or Lexis, there is an editorial indication that they were “abrogated” by the Supreme Court.  Based on that characterization, Liberty Counsel sought to get the 3rd Circuit to “reopen” the New Jersey case, but it refused to do so, and the Supreme Court declined Liberty Counsel’s request to review that decision.

Liberty Counsel and other opponents of bans on conversion therapy have now run with this language from Justice Thomas’s opinion, trying to convince courts in new challenges to conversion therapy bans that when the practitioner claims that the therapy is provided solely through speech, it is subject to strict scrutiny and likely to be held unconstitutional.  The likelihood that a law will be held unconstitutional is a significant factor in whether a court will deny a motion to dismiss a legal challenge or to grant a preliminary injunction against its enforcement.

Liberty Counsel used this argument to attack conversion therapy ordinances passed by the city of Boca Raton and Palm Beach County, both in Florida, but U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg rejected the attempt in a ruling issued on February 13, holding that despite Justice Thomas’s comments, the ordinances were not subject to strict scrutiny and were unlikely to be found unconstitutional. She found that they were covered under the second category that Justice Thomas recognized as being subject to regulation: where the ordinance regulated conduct that had an incidental effect on speech.  Otto v. City of Boca Raton, 353 F. Supp. 3d 1237 (S.D. Fla. 2019).

Liberty Counsel argued against that interpretation in its more recent challenge to the Maryland law.  It argued in its brief, “The government cannot simply relabel the speech of health professionals as ‘conduct’ in order to restrain it with less scrutiny,” and that because Dr. Doyle “primarily uses speech to provide counseling to his minor clients, the act of counseling must be construed as speech for purposes of First Amendment review.”

The problem is drawing a line between speech and conduct, especially where the conduct consists “primarily” of speech.  Judge Chasanow noted that the 4th Circuit has explained, “When a professional asserts that the professional’s First Amendment rights ‘are at stake, the stringency of review slides ‘along a continuum’ from ‘public dialogue’ on one end to ‘regulation of professional conduct’ on the other,” continuing: “Because the state has a strong interest in supervising the ethics and competence of those professions to which it lends its imprimatur, this sliding-scale review applies to traditional occupations, such as medicine or accounting, which are subject to comprehensive state licensing, accreditation, or disciplinary schemes.  More generally, the doctrine may apply where ‘the speaker is providing personalized advice in a private setting to a paying client.’”

And, quoting particularly from the 3rd Circuit New Jersey decision, “Thus, Plaintiff’s free speech claim turns on ‘whether verbal communications become ‘conduct’ when they are used as a vehicle for mental health treatment.”

Judge Chasanow found that the Maryland statute “obviously regulates professionals,” and although it prohibits particular speech “in the process of conducting conversion therapy on minor clients,” it “does not prevent licensed therapists from expressing their views about conversion therapy to the public and to their [clients.]”  That is, they can talk about it, but they can’t do it!  “They remain free to discuss, endorse, criticize, or recommend conversion therapy to their minor clients.”  But, the statute is a regulation of treatment, not of the expression of opinions.  And that is where the conduct/speech line is drawn.

She found “unpersuasive” Liberty Counsel’s arguments that “conversion therapy cannot be characterized as conduct” by comparing it to aversive therapy, which goes beyond speech and clearly involves conduct, usually involving an attempt to condition the client’s sexual response by inducing pain or nausea at the thought of homosexuality.  She pointed out that “conduct is not confined merely to physical action.” The judge focused on the goal of the treatment, reasoning that if the client presents with a goal to change their sexual orientation, Dr. Doyle would “presumably adopt the goal of his client and provide therapeutic services that are inherently not expressive because the speech involved does not seek to communicate [Doyle’s] views.”

She found that under 4th Circuit precedents, the appropriate level of judicial review is “heightened scrutiny,” not “strict scrutiny,” and that the ordinance easily survives heightened scrutiny, because the government’s important interest in protection minors against harmful treatment comes into play, and the legislative record shows plenty of data on the harmful effects of conversion therapy practiced on minors.  She notes references to findings by the American Psychological Association Task Force, the American Psychiatric Association’s official statement on conversion therapy, a position paper from the American School Counselor Association, and articles from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Association of Sexuality Educations, Counselor, and Therapists.  Such a rich legislative record provides strong support to meet the test of showing that the state has an important interest that is substantially advanced by banning the practice of conversion therapy on minors.

Having reached this conclusion, the judge rejected Liberty Counsel’s argument that the ban was not the least restrictive way of achieving the legislative goal, or that it could be attacked as unduly vague.  It was clear to any conversion therapy practitioner what was being outlawed by the statute, she concluded.

Turning to the religious freedom argument, she found that the statute is “facially neutral” regarding religion.  It prohibits all licensed therapists from providing this therapy “without mention of or regard for their religion,” and Liberty Counsel’s Complaint “failed to provide facts indicating that the ‘object of the statute was to burden practices because of their religious motivation.’”  She concluded that Doyle’s “bare conclusion” that the law “displays hostility toward his religious convictions is not enough, acting alone, to state a claim” that the law violates his free exercise rights.  She also rejected the argument that this was not a generally applicable law because it was aimed only at licensed practitioners.  Like most of the laws that have been passed banning conversion therapy, the Maryland law does not apply to religious counselors who are not licensed health care practitioners.  Because the law is enacted as part of the regulation of the profession of health care, its application to those within the profession is logical and has nothing to do with religion.  As a result, the free exercise claim falls away under the Supreme Court’s long-standing precedent that there is no free exercise exemption from complying with religiously-neutral state laws.

Having dismissed the First Amendment claims, Judge Chasanow declined to address Liberty Counsel’s claims under the Maryland Constitution, since there is no independent basis under the court’s jurisdiction to decide questions of state law.

Joining the Office of the Maryland Attorney General in defending the statute were FreeState Justice, Maryland’s LGBT rights organization, with attorneys from the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Lambda Legal.  Also, the law firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher of Washington, D.C., submitted an amicus brief on behalf of The Trevor Project, which is concerned with bolstering the mental health of LGBT youth.

Senior District Judge Chasanow was appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

 

Federal Court Rejects Gloucester School District’s Motion to Dismiss Gavin Grimm’s Case

Posted on: May 23rd, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Opening up a new chapter in the continuing battle of Gavin Grimm to vindicate his rights as a transgender man, U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen issued an Order on May 22 denying the Gloucester County (Virginia) School Board’s motion to dismiss the latest version of the case Grimm filed back in July 2015, prior to his sophomore year at Gloucester High School.

During the summer of 2014, Grimm’s transition had progressed to the point where he and his mother met with high school officials to tell them that he was a transgender boy and “would be attending school as a boy,” wrote Judge Allen.  They agreed to treat him as a boy, including allowing him to use the boys’ restrooms.  He did so for about seven weeks without any incident, until complaints by some parents led the school board to adopt a formal policy prohibiting Grimm from using the boys’ restrooms.  The school established some single-user restrooms that were theoretically open to all students, but Grimm was the only one who used them because they were not conveniently located to classrooms.

“Because using the single-user restrooms underscored his exclusion and left him physically isolated,” wrote Judge Allen, “Mr. Grimm refrained from using any restroom at school.  He developed a painful urinary tract infection and had difficulty concentrating in class because of his physical discomfort.”  During the summer after his sophomore year, he filed his lawsuit, alleging violations of Title IX – a federal statute that forbids schools from discriminating because of sex – and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

Meanwhile, Grimm had begun hormone therapy in December 2014, “which altered his bone and muscle structure, deepened his voice, and caused him to grow facial hair.”  In June 2015, he received a new Virginia identification car from the Motor Vehicles Department designated him as male.  During the summer of 2016, he had chest-reconstruction surgery, a necessary step to get the circuit court to issue an order changing his sex under Virginia law and directing the Health Department to issue him a birth certificate listing him as male.  He received the new birth certificate in October 2016.  Thus, as of that date, Grimm was male as a matter of Virginia law.

Yet, despite all these physical and legal changes, the School District clung to its contention that his “biological gender” was female and that he could not be allowed to use boys’ restrooms at the high school.  The school maintained this prohibition through the end of the school year, when Grimm graduated.

Meanwhile, his lawsuit was not standing still.  Senior U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar dismissed his Title IX claim in September 2015, denying his motion for a preliminary injunction, and holding his Equal Protection Claim in reserve while he appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond.  In the spring of 2016, the 4th Circuit sent the case back to the district court, issuing an opinion holding that the court should have deferred to the position advanced by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, which opined that discrimination because of gender identity is sex discrimination and schools are required under Title IX to treat student consistent with their gender identity.

Judge Doumar then issued a preliminary injunction during the summer of 2016 ordering the School District to let Grimm use the boys’ restrooms, but the School District obtained a stay of that order from the Supreme Court, which subsequently granted the School’s petition to review the 4th Circuit’s “deference” ruling.  The Supreme Court scheduled the case for argument, but then the incoming Trump Administration “withdrew” the position that the Obama Administration had taken, knocking the props out from under the 4th Circuit “deference” ruling, and persuaded the Supreme Court to cancel the argument and send the case back to the 4th Circuit, which in turn sent it back to the district court.  And, by the time it got there, Grimm had graduated from Gloucester County High School.

The School District attempted to get rid of the case at that point, arguing that it was moot.  Grimm begged to differ, arguing that his Title IX and Equal Protection rights had been continuously violated by the School District from the time it adopted its exclusionary restroom policy through the time of his graduation.  In a newly amended complaint, Grimm sought a declaratory judgement as to the violation of his rights under both Title IX and the constitution and an end to the school’s exclusionary policy.

The School District moved to dismiss this new complaint, leading to the May 22 ruling by Judge Allen, to whom the case had been reassigned in the interim. Judge Doumar, who was born in 1930, was appointed to the court by President Reagan and is still serving as a part-time senior district judge.  Judge Allen was appointed to the court by President Obama in 2011.

Judge Allen’s opinion relies heavily on important judicial developments that have occurred since Judge Doumar’s initial dismissal of the Title IX claim back in 2015. The 4th Circuit has yet to issue a ruling on the merits of the question whether federal laws that forbid discrimination because of sex can be construed to apply to gender identity discrimination claims.  Since the Supreme Court has also avoided addressing that issue, it was open to Judge Allen to follow as “persuasive precedents” the lengthening list of rulings from other federal courts, including five different circuit courts of appeals and many district courts, holding that sex discrimination laws should be broadly construed to cover gender identity claims.

These decisions draw their authority from two important Supreme Court decision: Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989) and Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services (1998). In Price Waterhouse, the Supreme Court accepted as evidence of intentional sex discrimination an accounting firm’s denial of a partnership to a woman who was deemed inadequately feminine by several partners who voted against her.  In Oncale, the Court ruled that Title VII, the federal law banning employment discrimination because of sex, could apply to a claim of hostile environment sexual harassment by a man who worked in an all-male workplace, commenting that even if this scenario was not contemplated by Congress when it passed Title VII in 1964, that statute could be applied to “comparable” situations.

Since the turn of the century, federal appeals courts have used those two cases to find that transgender people can seek relief from discrimination under the Gender-Motivated Violence Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, and the Equal Protection Clause. In addition, district courts have found such protection under the Fair Housing Act.  A consensus based on the gender stereotype theory has emerged, even in circuits that have generally been hostile to sexual minority discrimination claims.  And, most significantly, the 7th Circuit ruled last year in the case of Ashton Whitaker, a transgender boy, that Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause required a school district to allow him to use boys’ restroom and locker room facilities.  There is no material distinction between the Whitaker and Grimm cases.

Furthermore, and closer to home, on March 12 of this year U.S. District Judge George L. Russell, III, ruled in a case from Maryland (also in the 4th Circuit) that a school district had violated Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause by refusing to allow a transgender boy to use the boys’ locker room at his high school.  Judge Allen found Judge Russell’s analysis persuasive, as she did the recent cases from other courts.

Turning to Grimm’s constitutional claim, Judge Allen followed the precedents from other courts that have determined that discrimination against transgender people is subject to “heightened scrutiny” judicial review, similar to that used for sex discrimination cases. Under this standard, the challenged policy is presumed to be unconstitutional and the government bears the burden of showing that it substantially advances an important governmental interest.

The Gloucester School District argued that its interest in protecting the privacy of other students was sufficient to vindicate its policy, but Judge Allen disagreed, finding that “the policy at issue was not substantially related to protecting other students’ privacy rights. There were many other ways to protect privacy interests in a non-discriminatory and more effective manner than barring Mr. Grimm from using the boys’ restrooms.”  The school had created three single-user restrooms open to all students, so any student who sought to avoid using a common restroom with Mr. Grimm had only to use one of those.  She also noted that the School Board reacted to the controversy by taking steps “to give all students the option for even greater privacy by installing partitions between urinals and privacy strips for stall doors.”  Thus, any validity to privacy concerns raised when the controversy first arose had been substantially alleviated as a result of these renovations.

Having denied the School District’s motion to dismiss the amended complaint, Judge Allen directed the attorneys to contact the Courtroom Deputy for United States Magistrate Judges within thirty days to schedule a settlement conference. If the parties can’t work out a settlement with a magistrate judge, the district court will issue a final order dictating what the school district must do to be in compliance with Title IX and the Constitution.  And, because Grimm is the prevailing party in this long-running and hotly litigated civil rights case, one suspects that sometime down the road there will be a substantial attorneys’ fee award.

Grimm’s lawyer, Joshua Block of the ACLU LGBTQ Rights Project, indicated that their goal in the case at this point is the declaratory judgment and nominal damages for Grimm, and of course an end to the School Board’s discriminatory policy. Grimm now lives in Berkeley, California, and intends to begin college this fall in the Bay Area, according to the New York Times’ report on the case.

Of course, the School District may seek to appeal Judge Allen’s Order to the 4th Circuit.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a Memorandum last fall formally rejecting the Obama Administration’s position that federal sex discrimination laws forbid gender identity discrimination, so the School District could count on the Justice Department to support an appeal.  And Trump’s rapid pace in filling federal circuit court vacancies may slow or eventually halt the continuing trend of transgender-positive rulings from the other circuit courts, but that is not likely to be the case in the 4th Circuit for some time.  At present that court has an overwhelming majority of Democratic appointees (including six by Obama and four by Clinton on the 15 member court) with only one vacancy for Trump to fill.  The 4th Circuit was out front of the Supreme Court in 2014 in striking down state bans on same-sex marriage, and its 2016 opinion in Gavin Grimm’s case was notably transgender-friendly, so it is unlikely that an appeal by the School District will be successful in the 4th Circuit.  The Supreme Court, of course, may be a different matter.  Time will tell.

Supreme Court Will Not Decide Transgender Title IX Case This Term

Posted on: March 7th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Supreme Court will not decide this term whether Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and an Education Department regulation, 34 C.F.R. Section 106.33, require schools that receive federal money to allow transgender students to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity. Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., No. 16-273 (Summary Disposition, March 6, 2017).  Title IX states that schools may not discriminate because of sex if they get federal money, and the regulation allows schools to provide separate restroom and locker room facilities for boys and girls so long as they are “equal.”

Responding to a February 22 letter from the Trump Administration, advising the Court that the Education and Justice Departments had “withdrawn” two federal agency letters issued during the Obama Administration interpreting the statute and regulation to require allowing transgender students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity, the Court announced on March 6 that it was “vacating” the decision by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of transgender high school student Gavin Grimm, which it had previously agreed to review, and sending the case back to the 4th Circuit for “further consideration in light of the guidance document issued by the Department of Education and Department of Justice.”  The case had been scheduled for argument on March 28.

This result was not unexpected, although both parties in the case, Grimm and the Gloucester County, Virginia, School District, had asked the Court to keep the case on the docket and decide whether Title IX and the bathroom regulation required the district to let Grimm use boys’ restrooms at the high school. Represented by the ACLU LGBT Rights Project, Grimm urged the Court to hold the previously scheduled hearing.  The school district urged the Court to delay the hearing, in order to give the Trump Administration an opportunity to weigh in formally, but then to hear and decide the case.  Had the Court granted the school district’s request, the case might have been argued before the end of the Court’s current term or delayed to next fall.

The case dates back to 2015, when Grimm and his mother had met with school administrators during the summer prior to his sophomore year to tell them about his gender transition and they had agreed to let him use the boys’ restrooms, which he did for several weeks with no problems. Complaints by parents led the school board to adopt a resolution requiring students to use restrooms consistent with the sex indicated on their birth certificates – so-called “biological sex” – regardless of their gender identity.  The school also provided an alternative, unacceptable to Grimm, of using a single-user restroom that he found inconvenient and stigmatizing.

Grimm sued the school district, alleging a violation of his rights under Title IX and the 14th Amendment. The Education Department sent a letter at the request of the ACLU informing the district court that the Department interpreted Title IX and the bathroom regulation as “generally” requiring schools to let transgender students use facilities consistent with their gender identity.  Following the lead of several federal courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission interpreting other federal statutes that forbid sex discrimination, the Obama Administration took the position that laws against sex discrimination protect people from discrimination because of their gender identity.

The district judge, Robert Doumar, rejected the Obama Administration’s interpretation and granted the school district’s motion to dismiss the Title IX claim on September 17, 2015 (132 F. Supp. 3d 736), while reserving judgment on Grimm’s alternative claim that the policy violated his right to equal protection of the law guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.  Doumar opined that when adopting Title IX in 1972, Congress had not intended to forbid gender identity discrimination, notwithstanding the Obama Administration’s more recent interpretation of the statute.

The ACLU appealed Doumar’s ruling to the Richmond-based 4th Circuit, where a three-judge panel voted 2-1 on April 19, 2016 (822 F.3d 709), to reverse Judge Doumar’s decision.  The panel, applying a Supreme Court precedent called the Auer Doctrine, held that the district court should have deferred to the Obama Administration’s interpretation of the bathroom regulation because the regulation was ambiguous as to how transgender students should be accommodated and the court considered the Obama Administration’s interpretation to be “reasonable.”  A dissenting judge agreed with Judge Doumar that Title IX did not forbid the school district’s policy. The panel voted 2-1 to deny the school district’s motion for rehearing by the full 4th Circuit bench on May 31 (824 F.3d 450).

Shortly after the 4th Circuit issued its decision, the Education and Justice Departments sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to school administrators nationwide, advising them that the government would interpret Title IX to protect transgender students and providing detailed guidance on compliance with that requirement.  The letter informed recipients that failure to comply might subject them to Education Department investigations and possible loss of eligibility for federal funding.  This letter stirred up a storm of protest led by state officials in Texas, who filed a lawsuit joined by ten other states challenging the Obama Administration’s interpretation as inappropriate.  Subsequently another lawsuit was filed in Nebraska by state officials joined by several other states making the same argument.

Judge Doumar reacted quickly to the 4th Circuit’s reversal of his ruling, issuing a preliminary injunction on June 23 requiring the school district to allow Grimm to use boys’ restrooms while the case proceeded on the merits (2016 WL 3581852).  The 4th Circuit panel voted on July 12 to deny the school district’s motion to stay the preliminary injunction, but on August 3 the Supreme Court granted an emergency motion by the school district to stay the injunction while the district petitioned the Supreme Court to review the 4th Circuit’s decision (136 S. Ct. 2442).

It takes five votes on the Supreme Court to grant a stay of a lower court ruling pending appeal. Usually the Court issues no written opinion explaining why it is granting a stay.  In this case, however, Justice Stephen Breyer issued a one-paragraph statement explaining that he had voted for the stay as a “courtesy,” citing an earlier case in which the conservative justices (then numbering five) had refused to extend such a “courtesy” and grant a stay of execution to a death row inmate in a case presenting a serious 8th Amendment challenge to his death sentence.  Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan indicated that they would have denied the motion, so all four of the conservative justices had voted for the stay.  Since it takes five votes to grant a stay but only four votes to grant a petition for certiorari (a request to the Court to review a lower court decision), it was clear to all the justices that the school district’s subsequent petition for review would be granted, and it was, in part, on October 28 (137 S. Ct. 369).

Meanwhile, however, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor in Wichita Falls, Texas, had granted a “nationwide” preliminary injunction later in August in the Texas case challenging the Obama Administration guidance, blocking federal agencies from undertaking any new investigations or initiating any new cases involving gender identity discrimination claims under Title IX. Texas v. United States, 2016 WL 4426495 (N.D. Tex. Aug. 21, 2016).  The Obama Administration filed an appeal with the Houston-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, asking that court to cut down the scope of O’Connor’s injunction to cover just the states that had joined that lawsuit, pending litigation on the merits in that case.

The Gloucester school district’s petition for certiorari asked the Supreme Court to consider three questions: whether its doctrine of deferral to agency interpretations of regulations should be abandoned; whether, assuming the doctrine was retained, it should be applied in the case of an “unpublished” letter submitted by the agency in response to a particular lawsuit, and finally whether the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX and the regulation were correct.  The Court agreed only to address the second and third questions.

Donald Trump was elected a week later. During the election campaign, he stated that he would be revoking Obama Administration executive orders and administrative actions, so the election quickly led to speculation that the Gloucester County case would be affected by the new administration’s actions, since the Guidance had been subjected to strong criticism by Republicans.  This seemed certain after Trump announced that he would nominate Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama to be Attorney General, as Sessions has a long history of opposition to LGBT rights.  The announcement that Trump would nominate Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education fueled the speculation further, since her family was notorious for giving substantial financial support to anti-LGBT organizations.  It seemed unlikely that the Obama Administration’s Title IX Guidance would survive very long in a Trump Administration.

The other shoe dropped on February 22, just days before the deadline for submission of amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs on behalf of Gavin Grimm.   The Solicitor General’s office had not filed a brief in support of the school district at the earlier deadline, and there had been hope that the government would file a brief on behalf of Grimm or just stay out of the case.  According to numerous press reports, Secretary DeVos, who reportedly does not share her family’s anti-gay sentiments, had not wanted to withdraw the Guidance, but Attorney General Sessions insisted that the Obama Administration letters should be withdrawn, and Trump sided with Sessions in a White House showdown over the issue.

The February 22 “Dear Colleagues” letter was curiously contradictory, however. While announcing that the prior letters were “withdrawn” and their interpretation would not be followed by the government, the letter did not take a position directly on whether Title IX applied to gender identity discrimination claims.  Instead, it said that further study was needed on the Title IX issue, while asserting that the question of bathroom access should be left to states and local school boards and that schools were still obligated by Title IX not to discriminate against any students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  The letter was seemingly an attempt to compromise between DeVos’s position against bullying and discrimination and Sessions’ opposition to a broad reading of Title IX to encompass gender identity discrimination claims.  White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that the question of Title IX’s interpretation was still being considered by the administration.

In any event, the Obama Administration interpretation to which the 4th Circuit panel had deferred was clearly no longer operative, effectively rendering moot the first question on which the Supreme Court had granted review.  Although the parties urged the Court to continue with the case and address the second question, it was not surprising that the Court decided not to do so.

The usual role of the Supreme Court is to decide whether to affirm or reverse a ruling on the merits of a case by the lower court. In this case, however, the 4th Circuit had not issued a ruling on the merits as such, since the basis for its ruling was deference to an administrative interpretation.  The 4th Circuit held that the Obama Administration’s interpretation was “reasonable,” but not that it was the only correct interpretation of the regulation or the statute.  The only ruling on the merits in the case so far is Judge Doumar’s original 2015 ruling that Grimm’s complaint failed to state a valid claim under Title IX.  Thus, it was not particularly surprising that the Supreme Court would reject the parties’ request to hear and decide the issue of interpretation of Title IX, and instead to send it back to the 4th Circuit to reconsider in light of the February 22 letter.  The Court usually grants review because there are conflicting rulings in the courts of appeals that need to be resolved. Here there are no such conflicting rulings under Title IX and the bathroom regulation, since the only other decisions on this question are by federal trial courts.

After issuing its February 22 letter, the Justice Department abandoned its appeal of the scope of Judge O’Connor’s preliminary injunction in the Texas case and asked the 5th Circuit to cancel a scheduled argument, which it did.  Furthermore, withdrawal of the Obama Administration Guidance rendered the Texas v. U.S. case moot, since the relief sought by the plaintiffs was a declaration that the Guidance was invalid, so Judge O’Connor will dissolve his injunction and the case will be withdrawn, as will be the Nebraska case.

In the meantime, there are several other relevant cases pending. The Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit and the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit will be considering appeals from district court rulings on transgender student rights from Ohio and Pennsylvania, there are cases pending before trial courts elsewhere, and there are multiple lawsuits pending challenging North Carolina’s H.B. 2, which among other things mandates that transgender people in that state use public restrooms consistent with their birth certificates.  One case challenging H.B. 2 was filed by the Obama Justice Department and may be abandoned by the Trump Administration.  But the 4th Circuit is shortly to hear arguments on an appeal filed by three transgender plaintiffs who are students or staff members at the University of North Carolina, who won a preliminary injunction when the trial judge in their case, filed by the ACLU and Lambda Legal, deferred to the Obama Administration Guidance as required by the 4th Circuit’s ruling in Grimm’s case, but declined to rule on the plaintiffs’ claim that H.B. 2 also violated their constitutional rights.  Carcano v. McCrory, 2016 WL 4508192 (M.D.N.C. Aug. 26, 2016). The appeal is focused on their constitutional claim and their argument that the preliminary injunction, which was narrowly focused on the three of them, should have been broadly applied to all transgender people affected by H.B. 2.  The case pending in the 3rd Circuit also focuses on the constitutional claim, as a trial judge in Pittsburgh ruled that a western Pennsylvania school district violated the 14th Amendment by adopting a resolution forbidding three transgender high school students from using restrooms consistent with their gender identity. Evancho v. Pine-Richland School District, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26767, 2017 WL 770619 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 27, 2017).

Meanwhile, Gavin Grimm is scheduled to graduate at the end of this spring semester, which may moot his case since he was seeking injunctive relief to allow him to use the boys’ restrooms, unless the court is convinced that a live controversy still exists because the school district’s policy continues in effect and will still prevent Grimm from using the boys’ restrooms if he come to the school to attend alumni events.

It seems likely that whatever happens next in the Gavin Grimm case, the issue of transgender people and their access to gender-identity-consistent public facilities will continue to be litigated in many federal courts in the months ahead, and may be back to the Supreme Court soon, perhaps as early as its 2017-18 Term. By then, the Court is likely to be back to a five-member conservative majority, assuming the Senate either confirms Trump’s nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch or, if that stalls, another conservative nominee.  It is even possible that Trump may have a second vacancy to fill before this issue gets back to the Court, in which case the plaintiffs may face very long odds against success.

 

 

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!

4th Circuit Revives Transgender Teen’s Title IX Claim Against Virginia School Board

Posted on: April 19th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the Richmond-based U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 on April 19 that U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar erred by not deferring to the U.S. Department of Education’s interpretation of its regulations to require schools to let transgender students use restrooms consistent with their gender identity.  Judge Doumar had dismissed a claim by G.G., a teenage transgender boy attending high school in Gloucester County, Virginia, that the school violated his statutory right under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act by adopting a rule that he could use only restrooms designated for girls or unisex single-user restrooms.  The court referred to the plaintiff by his initials throughout the opinion to guard his privacy, but the ACLU’s press releases about the case identify him as Gavin Grimm.  G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 7026 (April 19, 2016).

The high school had accommodated G.G. when, at the beginning of his sophomore year in August 2014, he informed school officials that he was transitioning, had gotten a legal name change, and would be expressing his male gender identity, by letting him use the boys’ restroom. After several weeks without serious incident,  some parents alerted to the situation by their children objected and pushed the school board to adopt its resolution after two public meetings in which indignant parents threatened the board members with political retribution if they did not adopt the restrictive policy.  G.G., now 16, has not undergone reassignment surgery, which is not available to minors under the prevailing medical standards for treating gender dysphoria, but has transitioned in all other respects and identifies fully as male.

The 4th Circuit is the first federal appeals court to rule that the Education Department’s interpretation of Title IX, as expressed in an opinion letter by the Department’s Office of Civil Rights on January 7, 2015, in response to this controversy, should be followed by the federal courts.  Since North Carolina is also within the 4th Circuit, this ruling, as it now stands, suggests that the “bathroom” provisions of the notorious H.B. 2, at least as they apply to public educational institutions, violate federal law, as the ACLU and Lambda Legal have argued in a lawsuit challenging that statute pending in the U.S. District Court in North Carolina.

Writing for the majority of the panel, Circuit Judge Henry F. Floyd observed that the court’s role in a case involving an administrative agency’s interpretation of a statute is most deferential when the statute and the official regulations that have been adopted by the agency are ambiguous regarding the particular issue in dispute. Title IX says that educational institutions that receive federal funds may not discriminate because of sex.  The regulations, adopted decades ago, provide that educational institutions may designate separate facilities for use by males and females, so long as the facilities are equal in quality, but never directly address how to deal with transgender individuals whose “biological sex” differs from their gender identity.  In this respect, concluded a majority of the court, the regulations are “ambiguous.”  As such, the Department’s interpretation of the regulations should be deferred to by the court when they are a reasonable interpretation of the statute.  Indeed, wrote Floyd, the Department’s interpretation is entitled to deference “unless the [school] board demonstrates that the interpretation is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation or statute.”

District Judge Doumar had concluded that the regulations were not ambiguous, and refused to defer to the Department interpretation. Judge Floyd devoted a section of his opinion to explaining why the regulations are ambiguous.  “We conclude that the regulation is susceptible to more than one plausible reading because it permits both the Board’s reading – determining maleness or femaleness with reference exclusively to genitalia – and the Department’s interpretation – determining maleness or femaleness with reference to gender identity.”  When language can support alternative readings, there is ambiguity.  “The Department’s interpretation resolves the ambiguity by providing that in the case of a transgender individual using a sex-segregated facility, the individual’s sex as male or female is to be generally determined by reference to the student’s gender identity.”

Protesting against this conclusion, dissenting Circuit Judge Paul Niemeyer (who was, incidentally, also a dissenter in the 4th Circuit’s Virginia marriage equality decision in 2014), found that it would produce unacceptable results by violating the “physiological privacy interest” of students who did not want to share restroom facilities with students whose biological sex differed from theirs.  Judge Niemeyer essentially articulated, in more elevated terms, the arguments that North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory has been making in defense of the “bathroom” provisions in H.B. 2: that the privacy concerns of students who object to sharing facilities with transgender students should take priority over the interests of the transgender students.

But Judge Niemeyer doesn’t put it quite so crudely. Indeed, he suggests that the opinion letter from the Department authorized just what the school board did, by opining that schools could accommodate the needs of transgender students by providing unisex single-occupancy facilities for them to use.  Judge Floyd points out, however, that the Department’s advice was to provide such facilities for students who did not want to use multiple-use facilities.  In this case, G.G. wants to use the male-designated multiple-use facility as being congruent with his gender identity.  As to the privacy concerns, the court noted that the school board has made physical modifications in the boys’ restrooms by adding partitions between urinals and taping over visual gaps in the toilet stalls so as to enhance the privacy of all users.

Judge Floyd emphasized that because G.G. was only contesting the school board’s policy on restrooms, the court did not have to deal with the question whether other single-sex facilities, such as locker rooms and shower rooms, would have to be open to transgender students as well. Judge Niemeyer observed that discrimination “because of sex” had to mean the same thing throughout the statute and regulations, so he argued that the majority opinion opened up the door to allowing transgender students to claim a right of access to all such sex-designated facilities.

In a somewhat unintentionally humorous footnote, Judge Floyd noted the school board’s argument, reiterated in Judge Niemeyer’s dissent, that allowing biological males into the girls’ restrooms and biological females into the boys’ restrooms could produce “danger caused by ‘sexual responses prompted by students’ exposure to the private body parts of students of the other biological sex.’” Floyd observed, perhaps tongue in cheek, “The same safety concern would seem to require segregated restrooms for gay boys and girls who would, under the dissent’s formulation, present a safety risk because of the ‘sexual responses prompted’ by their exposure to the private body parts of other students of the same sex in sex-segregated restrooms.”  Yes!  Here is a federal judge with real empathy for hormone-infused teenagers of every sexual orientation and gender identity!

In addition to appealing Judge Doumar’s dismissal of his Title IX claim, G.G. was also appealing the Judge Doumar’s refusal to issue a preliminary injunction that would require the school board to let him use the boys’ restroom facilities while the case proceeded. Judge Doumar had refrained from ruling on G.G.’s constitutional equal protection claim, so his case was still alive before the district court even though his Title IX claim was dismissed.  Judge Doumar had focused his refusal of injunctive relief on his determination that G.G. failed to show that he would suffer irreparable harm if he was excluded from the boys’ restrooms while the case was pending.

The majority of the panel concluded that Doumar had wrongly refused to give appropriate consideration to the evidence presented by G.G. and his medical expert on this point, applying too strict a standard for considering evidence in the context of a motion for a preliminary injunction. The majority concluded that the appropriate step was to reverse the dismissal of the Title IX claim and send the case back to the district court for reconsideration of the motion for preliminary injunction, applying the correct evidentiary standard.  This means that G.G. will be back to square one before the district court, but with the wind of the court of appeals decision behind his back on key issues in the case.

G.G. had asked the court of appeals to reassign the case to another district judge. Judge Doumar made various comments in court that suggested bias, or at least a refusal to believe in the validity of the concept of gender identity, with references to G.G. as a girl who wanted to be a boy.  However, Judge Floyd pointed out, none of that objectionable language appeared in the written opinion that Judge Doumar released to explain his ruling, and the court was not going to conclude at this point that Doumar would not give appropriate consideration to the evidence when called upon by the court of appeals to reconsider his ruling, so the court denied G.G.’s request and the case will return to Judge Doumar.

The third member of the panel, Senior Circuit Judge Andre M. Davis, agreed with Judge Floyd that the Title IX claim should be revived, but would have gone further, contending that G.G. had satisfied the requirements for a preliminary injunction. However, since the grant of such an injunction is a matter within the discretion of the trial judge, he ultimately agreed to “defer to the district court in this instance.  It is to be hoped,” he continued, “that the district court will turn its attention to this matter with the urgency the case poses.  Under the circumstances here, the appropriateness and necessity of such prompt action is plain.  By the time the district court issues its decision, G.G. will have suffered the psychological harm the injunction sought to prevent for an entire school year.”

Judge Niemeyer’s dissent, reminiscent of his dissent in the Virginia marriage equality case, harps on the “unprecedented” nature of the ruling, asserting that the court’s “holding overrules custom, culture, and the very demands inherent in human nature for privacy and safety, which the separation of such facilities is designed to protect.” He also accused the majority of misconstruing the language of Title IX and its regulations, and concluded that “it reaches an unworkable and illogical result.”

G.G. is represented by the ACLU of Virginia and the ACLU’s national LGBT rights project. Joshua Block argued the appeal on his behalf on January 27.

Supreme Court Stays Virginia Marriage Ruling

Posted on: August 20th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Supreme Court issued an unsigned order today staying the 4th Circuit’s mandate in Bostic v. Schaefer, the Virginia marriage equality case.  The 4th Circuit panel had rejected Prince William County Clerk Michele McQuigg’s motion to stay pending Supreme Court review, and McQuigg promptly renewed her request for a stay by filing the motion with Chief Justice John Roberts.  Roberts requested input from the other parties, and then referred the matter to the full Court, which issued the unsigned order on August 20.  If the order had not been issued, the 4th Circuit’s ruling would have gone into effect tomorrow morning, August 21, at 8 am.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has already filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court seeking review and affirmance of the 4th Circuit’s decision.  He had supported McQuigg’s motion for a stay.  The plaintiffs in the underling cases, represented by the ACLU and Lambda Legal, had opposed the stay request, and urged the Court that if it were to stay the 4th Circuit ruling, it move quickly to grant cert and decide the case on the merits.

County clerks and various licensed marriage celebrants in Virginia were already gearing up for the possibility of issuing licenses and performing ceremonies on August 21, since Virginia law does not require couples to observe any waiting period after getting their licenses.  But the Supreme Court’s granting of the stay was really no surprise, because it stayed the 10th Circuit’s Utah marriage ruling and, as lower courts have generally acknowledged, sent a clear signal that if a state wants to appeal a marriage equality ruling, the Supreme Court is willing to stay the ruling pending appeal.

If one applies the “guidelines” that the Supreme Court has set out in the past as its standard for granting stays pending appeal, then one can attribute to this stay ruling a view among the Justices that it is likely that a petition for certiorari will be granted in a marriage equality case this term, that there is at least a fair possibility that the Supreme Court might reverse the 4th Circuit’s decision, that irreparable harm to the state might result from allowing the 4th Circuit’s decision to go into effect and the balance of equities weighs in favor of the party seeking the stay.  But I would question how stringently the Court is applying these standards, and I think the issuance of this stay is more about politics and prudence than about applying these tests.

On the one hand, it seems highly likely to me that the Court will grant cert in one of the pending marriage equality cases.  Since U.S. v. Windsor last year, the Court’s latest word on same-sex marriage, was a 5-4 decision, there is certainly a “fair” possibility that the swing voter in the prior case could swing the other way on this one, and marriage equality proponents should not count any chickens before they are hatched.  But the rhetoric of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinions in Windsor, Lawrence v. Texas and Romer v. Evans strongly suggests that he may rule similarly in favor of the plaintiffs-respondents if the Court grants cert in the Utah, Oklahoma or Virginia cases.  As to irreparable harm, unless one accepts without question the contention that a state suffers irreparable harm every time a federal court blocks the enforcement of a state law, no matter how ill-conceived or potentially unconstitutional is the law, I have trouble seeing it.  Now that same-sex couples have been getting married in 19 states and the District of Columbia, in some states for several years, it is possible to see quite clearly that allowing such marriages to take place or be recognized does not cause any irreparable harm to the states.  In terms of the balance of the equities, it seems pretty clear that the harm to a state is to its “sovereign dignity” but will not adversely affect the public welfare or the economy of the state or its institution of marriage, whereas delaying the marriage rights of same-sex couples could clearly work irreparable injuries to them in terms of dignitary and economic losses, and even loss of life and liberty.  So the balance of the equities on these stay petitions clearly favors the respondents, in my opinion.

At any rate, what the Supreme Court says, even without explanation of its reasoning, is binding upon all parties, so the 4th Circuit’s mandate is stayed.

In its Order, the Court is very specific in providing that the stay will automatically be dissolved if the Court denies the petition for certiorari that Clerk Michele McQuigg is expected to file.  This suggests to me that if the Court decides to grant one of the other petitions, it will “hold” the McQuigg petition and neither deny nor grant it until it has decided on the merits the case that it accepts for review.

On the other hand, the Court is also very specific in stating that if the petition is granted, “the stay shall terminate upon the sending down of the judgment of this Court.”  Perhaps, as Chris Geidner suggests in his Buzzfeed.com report on today’s Order, this is intended to avoid the court of appeals “jumping the gun” and allowing same-sex couples to start marrying right away upon announcement of the Supreme Court’s opinion, as happened in 2013 when the 9th Circuit lifted its stay shortly after the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal in Hollingsworth v. Perry on jurisdictional grounds.  The big difference, of course, is that in Hollingsworth the stay had been granted by the 9th Circuit at the request of the appellants, so it was up to the 9th Circuit when to lift it.  In this case, however, the stay is being granted by the Supreme Court (having previously been denied by the 4th Circuit), so it is the Supreme Court that sets the terms, and presumably the Court will not “send down” its judgment formally to the court of appeals until the time has expired for filing motions for reconsideration or for reargument.  Thus, if the Supreme Court affirms the 4th Circuit, the Court will retain control over the timing of its decision going into effect.  This seems like a pragmatic move, inasmuch as a sweeping Supreme Court marriage equality ruling will require the remaining 31 states that ban same-sex marriage to make whatever adjustments are necessary to their forms and procedures in order to facilitate the volume of license applications they may subsequently experience, as well as the filing of stepparent adoption petitions, employee benefit plan enrollment forms, etc., from already-married same-sex couples seeking recognition of their marriages.  There might even be a small flood of pent-up divorce petitions….

To those unfamiliar with the workings of the Supreme Court and the appellate process, do not be misled by headlines reporting today’s development along the lines of “Supreme Court Blocks Virginia Same-Sex Marriages.”  While it is technically true that the stay “blocks” same-sex couples from marrying in Virginia on August 21, this is not a ruling on the merits by the Supreme Court, and it does not represent a judgment by the Court that same-sex couples are not entitled to marry.  It is a technical move by the Court to preserve its jurisdiction and the orderly appellate process by relieving the state of Virginia of the obligation to ignore its same-sex marriage ban until the Supreme Court has decided whether to weigh in on the controversy.

And, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has already stated publicly her opinion that the Court will not “duck” a ruling on marriage equality this time around, as it did in 2013 in the California Prop 8 case.  The pending cert petitions present no major jurisdictional impediment to a ruling on the merits.  If the Court grants review in one of the marriage equality cases, there is likely to be a ruling on the merits before the end of the term that gets underway on October 6 — most likely sometime in the spring or early summer of 2015.

4th Circuit Denies Motion to Stay Mandate in Marriage Ruling Beyond August 20

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

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit that decided the case of Bostic v. Schaeffer, striking as unconstitutional Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage, denied a motion by one of the defendants, Prince William County Clerk Michele McQuigg, to stay its mandate beyond the short time that it had authorized in its decision.  That effectively places the question whether same-sex couples can begin marrying in Virginia soon into the hands of the Supreme Court, and initially into the hands of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., if any party in the case asks him to grant a further stay.  (Update: Alliance Defending Freedom, representing McQuigg, filed an application for a stay on August 14.  Chief Justice Roberts notified the parties on August 15 that the full Court will consider the request, and that any additional papers or argument should be submitted by 5 pm on Monday, August 18.  Since the 4th Circuit’s mandate goes into effect at 8 am on August 21 if not stayed, presumably the Court will issue a ruling on the application before then.)

The case is in a somewhat odd posture.  The lawsuit was originally filed against the Republican governor and attorney general of Virginia last July.  Subsequent motion practice resulted in dropping those officials as defendants and substituting the State Registrar, Janet M. Rainey, and Norfolk County Clerk George E. Schaefer, III, whose office had denied a marriage license to one of the plaintiff couples.  Then Democrats were elected governor and attorney general, and Prince William County Clerk Michele B. McQuigg was granted intervenor status to defend the marriage ban when it seemed likely that neither the new governor nor the new attorney general would be inclined to do so.  After the inauguration, McQuigg’s fears were confirmed, as the governor and attorney general announced they would not defend the marriage ban.  Before the trial court, the state joined with the plaintiffs in seeking invalidation of the marriage ban, which they achieved.

The two clerks appealed to the 4th Circuit.  At the oral argument, Solicitor General Stuart A. Raphael represented the Attorney General’s office, argued in support of the plaintiffs, and the 4th Circuit affirmed the district court, by a vote of 2-1, on July 28.  Clerk McQuigg announced that she would file a cert petition rather than seek en banc review in the 4th Circuit (where a majority of the judges are Democratic appointees).  She had 90 days to do so.  But then Attorney General Mark Herring announced that he would promptly file a cert petition to ensure that the case is lined up for consideration by the Supreme Court when it reconvenes in the fall.  However, he supported a motion by McQuigg to stay the ruling pending an ultimate determination by the Supreme Court.  The plaintiffs, of course, opposed the stay, arguing that any delay in the implementation of the right to marry for the plaintiffs (who include not just the two couple plaintiffs in Bostic but also the certified plaintiff class of all same-sex couples in Virginia in the Harris v. Rainey case, which was joined to the Bostic case for argument) worked an irreparable injury.  Herring’s cert petition was filed with the Supreme Court on August 8.

Evidently, the plaintiffs’ argument was persuasive to a majority of the 4th Circuit panel, as Judges Floyd and Gregory voted to deny the motion over the dissent of Judge Niemeyer, who had dissented on the merits as well.  This means that the 4th Circuit’s temporary stay will expire next Tuesday night, and same-sex couples could theoretically begin obtaining marriage licenses on Wednesday morning, while couples already married in other jurisdictions could initiate whatever measures they sought to exercise their marital recognition rights (e.g., filing step-parent adoption petitions).

The justice of the Supreme Court to whom motions for stays from the 4th Circuit are directed is Chief Justice Roberts.  Any party can file such a motion, and it would be surprising if neither Herring nor one or both of the Clerks file such a motion.  It would also be surprisingly, in light of the Court’s conduct on stay motions so far this year, if such a stay were not granted.  So people should not get their hopes up too much for a quick implementation of the marriage ruling.

Also, so far the Supreme Court has not added the pending marriage equality cert petitions to the agenda for its September 29 conference.  One suspects they are going to put off considering the petitions right away, which is the course they followed in 2012 with the DOMA cert petitions.  Although they already had petitions on file early in the term, new petitions subsequently arrived from various lower court decisions, and the Supreme Court discussed the DOMA petitions at several conferences before finally announcing their cert grant in December 2012.  In the case of marriage, we have still to hear from the 6th Circuit, which heard arguments on August 6 in cases from four states, the 7th Circuit will be hearing arguments on August 26 in cases from two states, and the 9th Circuit will be hearing arguments in cases from three states on September 8.  So the Supreme Court might just hold the cert petitions with the expectation that there will also be petitions from decisions by those circuits in coming months.  Or, considering the stays in effect and the number of people eagerly anticipating a decision, they might move relatively quickly.  Since they have no time limits governing their action, it is all a matter of speculation.  But it seems unlikely that the Court would fail to take a marriage equality case for review this term, which would most likely mean a decision by the end of June.  Justice Ginsburg has already told interviewers that she thinks the Court will not duck the same-sex marriage issue this term.

 

4th Circuit Panel Acquits Gay Man Arrested in North Carolina Sting Operation

Posted on: July 21st, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments

Reversing decisions by U.S. District Judge Martin K. Reidiner and a U.S. Magistrate Judge, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to acquit a gay man who had been convicted of disorderly conduct for groping an undercover federal ranger who had targeted him in a vice sting operation in November 2009 at the Sleepy Gap Overlook of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Buncombe County, North Carolina, near the city of Asheville.  The decision is U.S. v. Lanning, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 14645 (4th Cir., July 19, 2013).

Writing for the court, Circuit Judge James A. Wynn, Jr., found that “no rational trier of fact could find beyond a reasonable doubt” that Joe Lanning’s “brief touch of the ranger’s crotch, done in response to the ranger’s deliberate attempt to convince Defendant that he would have sex with him, was ‘physically threatening or menacing’ or ‘likely to inflict injury or incite an immediate breach of the peace.’” Wynn also found that Lanning’s conduct was not “obscene” under the circumstances.

The U.S. Park Service and Forest Service, claiming to have received complaints from members of the public that the Sleepy Gap Overlook had become a locus of gay male sex activity, undertook a joint operation “designed to enable officers to identify and arrest men who were using the area for sexual solicitation or activity with other men.” Joe Darling, a 200 pound 33- year-old park ranger, had been assigned to undercover duty as part of this operation, and was out looking to find gay men to arrest.

Darling spotted Joe Lanning, a 62-year-old retiree, on a trail near the Overlook, and set out to arrest him by provoking him into some actionable conduct. As Judge Wynn tells the story in his summary of the trial record, “As Darling walked past Defendant, Defendant grabbed his own groin and kept walking. Darling said hello and also kept walking. Five or ten minutes later, after walking around in the woods and talking to a few other people, Darling went looking for Defendant and found him standing by himself on an unofficial trail. Darling engaged Defendant in a casual conversation about the weather for several minutes. Darling then commented that Asheville was ‘an open community,’ accepting of a homosexual lifestyle. Defendant responded that he ‘wanted to be F’ed.’ Darling replied ‘okay or yes, or some to that affirmative,’ and ‘gave Lanning every reason to believe that Darling was good to go.’ At that point, Defendant – who was facing Darling and standing approximately three to five feet away from him – turned around, took one or two steps backward towards Darling, and, with his left hand, reached back and ‘very briefly’ touched Darling’s fully-clothed crotch. Darling described the touch as ‘a fairly firm grasp’ that lasted ‘very briefly,’” until he could get the words out: “Police officer, you’re under arrest.”

Lanning was charged with “disorderly conduct” under a federal regulation adopted by the U.S. Interior Department to regulate conduct on federal park land.  The regulation provides that a person commits the offense of “disorderly conduct” if he “uses language, an utterance, or gesture, or engages in a display or act that is obscene, physically threatening or menacing, or done in a manner that is likely to inflict injury or incite an immediate breach of the peace.”

A magistrate judge sentenced Lanning to 15 days in prison, a $1000 fine, and a two-year ban on visiting any federal forests or parks. Lanning appealed to the district court, which found that the magistrate judge did not have authority to impose the two-year ban and returned the case to the magistrate for resentencing. The second time around, the magistrate sentenced Lanning to 15 days and a $500 fine, which the district court affirmed.

Lanning appealed to the 4th Circuit, claiming that the government failed to meet its burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that he had engaged in disorderly conduct.

First, the appeals court found that the word “obscene” as used in this regulation was “unconstitutionally vague as applied” because it “would not have provided him, or anyone of ordinary intelligence, fair warning that the complained-of conduct was obscene.” Consulting dictionaries for a definition of this term, which is not defined in the regulation, the court said that “under these circumstances, we cannot conclude that anyone ‘of ordinary intelligence’ would understand that such conduct is ‘morally repulsive’ or ‘offensively or grossly indecent’ or ‘lewd.’” Judge Wynn went on to observe that this case showed “the real risk that the provision may be ‘arbitrarily and discriminatorily enforced,’” because this sting operation “specifically targeted gay men. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the all-male undercover rangers arrested only men on the basis of disorderly homosexual conduct. The impetus for the sting operation: citizen complaints. Darling testified that ‘the public was concerned’ about ‘male on male activity in that area that was targeted.’ Darling testified that every single one of the citizen complaints had been about homosexuals. It may be that gay men engage more frequently in sexual activity in the Blue Ridge Parkway and therefore generate more citizen complaints. Yet it is entirely plausible that the public in and around the Blue Ridge Parkway subjectively finds homosexual conduct, even relatively innocuous conduct such as that at issue here, particularly ‘morally repulsive’ and ‘grossly indecent,’ and therefore complains. If the public is, by contrast, not similarly troubled by a woman propositioning her boyfriend for sex and then briefly touching his clothed crotch, there would exist no citizen complaints and no related sting, even for otherwise identical heterosexual conduct. Simply enforcing the disorderly conduct regulation on the basis of citizen complaints therefore presents a real threat of anti-gay discrimination.”

Wynn said that the court’s holding was not that the regulation was unconstitutionally vague “per se,” but rather was vague as applied to these circumstances, contrasting another case in which a court rejected a vagueness challenge where the defendant was arrested while engaging in masturbation and fellatio in a national park, and stating complete agreement with that case. “The conduct at issue here, however,” he wrote, “is of a qualitatively different, significantly more benign nature. We do not believe that a reasonable defendant would know that by engaging in such conduct under the circumstances of this case, he would be subjecting himself to criminal liability. That, coupled with our serious concern regarding discriminatory enforcement, leads us to conclude that [the regulation] is unconstitutionally vague as applied and that the ‘obscene’ prong of the regulation therefore cannot serve as a basis for Defendant’s conviction.”

The court was similarly persuaded as to the other two prongs of the regulation.

As to the requirement that conduct be “physically threatening or menacing,” wrote Wynn, “it defies logic that Darling was shocked by Defendant’s touch when it was, in fact, precisely what Darling had been ‘stringing Defendant along’ to do – to cross a certain line’ so that he could arrest him. “Facts matter,” insisted Wynn. “Had Defendant and Darling engaged in flirtatious conversation that did not involve an agreement to have sex, a reasonable person might well have felt physically threatened or menaced” by Lanning’s actions. “Likewise, had Defendant pinned Darling down and attempted to remove Darling’s clothing, a reasonable person, even one who had consented to sex, might well have felt physically threatened or menaced by that conduct.” But that was not this case.

Turning to the requirement that defendant’s conduct was “done in a manner that is likely to inflict injury or incite an immediate breach of the peace,” the court was again unpersuaded, pointing out that “Darling approached Defendant and engaged in flirtatious conversation” and Darling agreed to Lanning’s proposition to have sex. “Only after Darling agreed to Defendant’s proposition did Defendant back up to Darling and briefly touch Darling’s clothed crotch, whereupon Darling arrested him.” Given these circumstances, wrote Wynn, Darling has “given Defendant ‘every reason to believe that’ Darling was ‘good to go.’” “ No rational trier of fact could thus conclude that Darling himself likely would react violently to Defendant’s fleeting touch,” wrote Wynn. “Further, if one were to take Darling’s real identity, i.e., that of an undercover ranger, into account, the government’s burden would be even greater, because a properly trained officer may reasonably be expected to exercise a higher degree of restraint than the average citizen, and thus be less likely to respond belligerently to ‘fighting words.’” Remarking on the briefness of the encounter, Wynn speculated that even a member of the general public stumbling upon the scene would be unlikely to be provoked into a violent response.

Wynn was joined in his opinion by Circuit Judge Henry Franklin Floyd. Both judges in the majority were appointed to the court by President Obama.

The dissenter, Allyson Kay Duncan, was appointed by George W. Bush. She accused the majority of failing to accord “the level of deference to the magistrate judge’s findings of fact required by our standard of review. I believe that a rational trier of fact could have found a physical touching such as this implying an immediate intent to engage in sexual activity in public both obscene and physically threatening or menacing within the meaning” of the regulation. However, she did not expand on these remarks to justify her conclusion.