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Passport Denial Violates Transgender Man’s Equal Protection Rights

Posted on: November 29th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Gloria M. Navarro ruled on November 23 that the State Department violated the 5th Amendment Equal Protection rights of Oliver Bruce Morris, a transgender man, by refusing to issue him a passport identifying him as male unless he could provide a doctor’s certification of clinical treatment for gender transition.  Morris v. Pompeo, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 219009 (D. Nevada).  Judge Navarro rejected Morris’s claim that the denial violated his due process rights, and abstained from deciding his Administrative Procedure Act claim on the ground that the relief ordered by the court – to process the passport application without requiring the physician’s letter – had mooted that claim.

Morris, who was identified as female at birth but has identified as male for several years, has health insurance but it doesn’t cover gender transition surgery.  He has been receiving hormone treatment, which is covered by his insurance, under the care of a licensed practical nurse.  He is identified as male on his driver’s license, and obtained a legal name change from a Nevada court.

Morris applied for a 10-year passport in October 2018. “On the application’s checkbox for ‘Sex,’” wrote Judge Navarro, “Plaintiff checked the ‘M’ box, indicating male. Plaintiff included three identity documents in his application: a Nevada driver’s license, which indicates his sex is male; an original copy of his birth certificate, which indicates his sex is female; and a court-ordered name change, indicating that he legally changed his name from “Chanesse Olivia Morris” to “Oliver Bruce Morris” on June 27, 2018.”

Evidently the bureaucrats at the State Department were stymied by the inconsistency between the driver’s license, the name-change court order, and the birth certificate, concerning Morris’s gender.  He received a letter asking him to “verify his sex,” wrote Judge Navarro. “The letter explained, ‘[i]n order to issue you a passport card reflecting a sex different from the one on some or all of your citizenship and/or identity evidence, please send us a signed original statement on office letterhead from your attending medical physician.’ The letter enumerated the information Plaintiff’s physician would have to certify under penalty of perjury, including, ‘[l]anguage stating that you have had appropriate clinical treatment for transition to the new sex.”

Now Morris was stymied, since he is not under a physician’s care, which would not be covered by his health insurance for this purpose.  As a person of limited means, he was being assisted on this application be a legal services attorney, who sent a letter on his behalf “explaining he would not provide the requested certification because he could not afford gender transition treatment, and the requirement violated his constitutional rights.”  The State Department sent several “final notices” repeating the request for a physician’s letter before denying the application due to Morris’s failure to “verify” his sex.  Nevada Legal Services attorneys Christena Georgas-Burns and David A. Olshan then filed suit on his behalf.

The complaint claims that the denial of the passport violated Morris’s 5th Amendment Due Process rights, alleging that he has a constitutional right to refuse medical treatment for gender transition, and his Equal Protection rights, arguing that because cisgender people are not required to provide a physician’s verification of their sex in order to get a proper passport, such a requirement cannot be posed to transgender people.   He also alleged that the barriers the State Department has erected in his case are outside the scope of its authority under the Administrative Procedure Act.  The government moved for summary judgment on the APA claim and to dismiss the constitutional claims, and Morris countered with a motion for summary judgment on all his claims.

The court rejected Morris’s Due Process claim, reasoning that the government is not requiring Morris to submit to surgical treatment in order to get a passport, as they would be happy to issue him a passport with a sex designation consistent with his birth certificate.  That sounds a bit nonsensical, since a passport with his male name and picture and a female sex designation would undoubtedly lead to problems should he try to use it as identification, especially in international travel.  Perhaps his Due Process claim would have gotten further by relying on the right to autonomy and self-identification mentioned by the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas, but that theory was not argued on the summary judgment motion by Morris.  Be that as it may, however, the court’s acceptance of his Equal Protection claim renders the loss on the Due Process claim harmless in this context.

As to the Equal Protection claim, Judge Navarro’s ruling on Morris’s summary judgment motion treated his claim as an as-applied claim rather than a facial unconstitutionality claim, because of the particular proof issues in deciding the plaintiff’s summary judgment motion on a claim of discrimination that merits heightened scrutiny.  There is caselaw in the 9th Circuit – specifically, the circuit’s ruling in Karnoski v. Trump, 926 F.3d 1180, 1201 (9th Cir. 2019) – holding that the federal government faces heightened scrutiny when it is challenged for applying a policy in a way that discriminates against a transgender person.  (In Karnoski, the court was considering President Trump’s transgender military service ban, as concretized by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in a policy implemented in April 2019.)  Morris’s complaint alleges facts sufficient to sustain a claim of unequal treatment.  Under heightened scrutiny, the government bears the burden on summary judgment of providing an “exceedingly persuasive justification” for imposing its requirement of a physician’s statement to verify a person’s sex and certifying clinical transitional treatment as a prerequisite to getting a passport consistent with the person’s gender identity.

Judge Navarro found that the government’s summary judgment motion was not accompanied by such proof, as it consisted of generalized statements about the importance of the passport as an identity document. “Here,” she wrote, “the Government frames its purported interest too broadly and fails to provide evidence that the interest is exceedingly persuasive. Defendant asserts interests in verifying passport applicants’ identities and ‘[i]ssuing passports that accurately state the bearer’s identity[.]’ There is little doubt that the State Department has an interest in accurately representing the identities of U.S. citizens to foreign nations. However, the only facet of identity at issue here is a passport applicant’s sex or gender. Defendant has provided no explanation, let alone any evidence, of why the State Department has an important interest in verifying a transgender passport applicant’s gender identity, nor a cogent explanation of why the Policy requiring a physician’s certification increases the accuracy of issued passports. Assuming, arguendo, that Defendant has a substantial interest in verifying transgender applicants’ gender identities, he has not shown why a doctor’s certification substantially furthers the interest with respect to transgender applicants given that not all transgender persons receive or require physician treatment.”

In other words, the court implicitly accepts the plaintiff’s argument that one’s gender identity and appropriate sex designation on a passport is not an artifact of genitalia.  One can be a transgender person and entitled to recognition as such without undergoing gender confirmation surgery.  The requirement for a physician to certify “clinical” treatment for transition is not supported by an “exceedingly persuasive” explanation here.

“Given that Plaintiff has prevailed on his equal protection claim,” wrote Judge Navarro, “the Court orders Defendant to review Plaintiff’s passport application without requiring a physician’s certification of Plaintiff’s gender. If Plaintiff’s application is otherwise sufficient under the relevant State Department regulations, Defendant shall issue Plaintiff a 10-year passport. As the Plaintiff has succeeded on his as-applied challenge, the Court declines to address whether the Policy is facially unconstitutional.”  And, as noted above, having provided Morris exactly what he is seeking under his constitutional claim, the court found it unnecessary to rule on the merits of his APA claim.

Thus, the government’s motion to dismiss the constitutional claims was granted as to the Due Process claim and denied as to the Equal Protection claim, and the Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment was granted as to the Equal Protection claim and denied as to the Due Process claim, while the APA claim was dismissed as moot.

Judge Navarro was appointed to the district court by President Barack Obama in 2010.