A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled by a vote of 2-1 on March 29 that the state of Texas did not violate the 8th Amendment right against cruel or unusual punishment by denying gender confirmation surgery to transgender inmate Vanessa Lynn Gibson. Gibson v. Collier, 2019 WL 1417271, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 9397. The dissent argued that the substantive legal question was not properly before the court. The majority took the position that a state may categorically refuse to provide gender confirmation surgery (or, as they labelled it, “sex reassignment surgery”) as a treatment for gender dysphoria, regardless of the needs of the individual inmate.
The opinion for the panel was written by James C. Ho, who was nominated by President Donald Trump to fill one of the long-standing vacancies on the 5th Circuit that was preserved by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s determined effort to block President Obama from filling circuit court vacancies that opened up during his second term. The retirement of an active judge created this vacancy in 2013. Upon confirmation by the Senate, James Ho joined the court on January 4, 2018. He was previously Solicitor General of Texas, and active in the Federalist Society. Joining Ho’s opinion was Circuit Judge Jerry Edwin Smith, who was appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan. The dissenter was Senior Circuit Judge Rhesa Hawkins Barksdale, who was appointed by President George H. W. Bush. (President Trump has appointed five out of the sixteen current active judges on the circuit court, among whom two were appointed by President Bill Clinton and three by President Barack Obama. There is on vacancy pending on the 5th Circuit.)
Judge Ho’s opinion rests on two simple propositions. Under the 8th Amendment’s text and case law concerning the rights of inmates to medical treatment, denying an inmate a treatment that is controversial within the medical profession and which has rarely if ever been provided to inmates cannot be held to violate the Amendment. For one thing, he argued, denying sex reassignment surgery is not rare. Indeed, it is a matter of course, since by his account only once in the nation’s history has any state prison system provided sex reassignment surgery to an inmate, when California recently settled a lawsuit by agreeing to provide sex reassignment surgery to the plaintiff. Thus, denying such a procedure is not “rare,” and the 8th Amendment only prohibits punishments that are cruel and unusual. On the other point, he wrote, the case law supports the proposition that the state only violates the 8th Amendment if it exhibits deliberate indifference to a serious medical condition, a demanding test that requires that the treatment requested by the inmate be one as to which there is widespread agreement among health care providers about its necessity. Thus, if there is significant disagreement among medical authorities about whether a particular treatment is necessary, it doesn’t violate the Constitution for the state to refuse to provide it.
The opinion sets out only the bare bones of factual allegations by plaintiff Scott Lynn Gibson (a/k/a Vanessa Lynn Gibson). The court uses male pronouns to refer to Gibson, claiming that Gibson did not object, although the litigation papers Gibson prepared while pro se use feminine pronouns. Gibson is an inmate at the Gatesville facility of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Gibson was incarcerated on conviction of two counts of aggravated robbery, and committed additional crimes in prison of aggravated assault, possession of a deadly weapon, and murder. Upon further conviction, Gibson is sentenced to serve through May 2013, eligible for consideration for parole in April 2021. Identified male at birth, Gibson has identified and lived as female since age 15, but was not diagnosed as having gender dysphoria at the time of incarceration.
The court accepts that Gibson has gender dysphoria as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) published by the American Psychiatric Association, is depressed, and has attempted self-castration and suicide, although according to the record is not presently considered suicidal (although learning of this decision may well affect that). It was not until after a suicide attempt that Gibson obtained a formal diagnosis. Gibson has been receiving counseling and hormone therapy, but insists that surgery is necessary to ameliorate her condition. Despite living as a woman, Gibson is incarcerated per the state’s policy in a men’s prison. The state’s formal policy provides that transgender inmates be “evaluated by appropriate medical and mental health professionals and have their treatment determined on a case by case basis,” reflecting the “current, accepted standards of care.” The policy does not mention surgery, but doctors have repeatedly denied Gibson’s request for surgery because the TDCJ formal policy does not “designate [sex reassignment surgery] as part of the treatment protocol for Gender Identity Disorder.”
Gibson represented herself in this lawsuit until it reached the level of the Court of Appeals, at which point the court appointed counsel to represent Gibson on appeal: Stephen Louis Braga, I, of the University of Virginia Law School’s Appellate Litigation Clinic. This appointment is apparently only for the appeal; had the case been remanded, Gibson would presumably be pro se again. From the court’s account of oral argument, referred to several times in the opinion, it appears that Braga made concessions at oral argument that supported the court’s ultimate conclusion because of how Judge Ho dealt with the facts, but it is clear that the court was most heavily influenced by a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, Kosilek v. Spencer, 774 F. 3d 63 (1st Circuit, en banc, 2014), in which the full 1st Circuit bench reversed a three-judge panel’s 2-1 decision and held that a transgender inmate serving a sentence of life without parole was not entitled to receive sex reassignment surgery. Most importantly, Judge Ho referred repeatedly to the 1st Circuit’s summary of expert medical testimony offered in that case, filling an important gap in this case’s record, where there is no direct expert testimony because the district court rejected Gibson’s claims outright. Judge Barksdale’s dissent objects to heavy reliance on the Kosilek ruling in this way.
Prison inmates are entirely dependent on the corrections system for their health care, for obvious reasons. The Supreme Court and lower federal courts have found that prisoners are entitled to “necessary treatment for serious medical conditions.” There is a consensus among federal courts that gender dysphoria is a “serious medical condition,” but there is no judicial consensus about whether sex reassignment surgery is a necessary treatment for it, and to date there is no final ruling on the merits by any federal appeals court ordering a state to provide sex reassignment surgery to a transgender inmate. As the courts have interpreted the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, a “necessary” treatment is one that has achieved general acceptance in the relevant medical specialty, and some courts have relied on Standards of Care published by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) as potentially supporting general acceptance – however, Judge Ho asserts, only in denying motions to dismiss cases, not in ultimate rulings on the merits.
The WPATH Standards state that “for many, surgery is essential and medically necessary to alleviate their gender dysphoria.” But, Judge Ho observes, in the Kosilek decision, the 1st Circuit reported expert testimony sharply divided over whether sex reassignment is necessary treatment, and some testimony suggesting that WPATH is not an objective source but rather an organization devoted to advocacy for transgender rights whose published standards do not necessarily reflect a consensus of the medical profession, or even of individuals specializing in providing treatment to transgender patients. Be that as it may, to the Gibson panel majority, this was sufficient to suggest that there is “serious dispute” within the medical profession about the necessity for sex reassignment surgery, and so long as that situation prevails, it is not “deliberate indifference” by the Texas corrections system to categorically refuse to provide such treatment.
While many federal courts have made clear that hormone therapy can be considered necessary for cases of severe gender dysphoria, and that counseling by itself is not always sufficient to meet the constitutional standard of care, even that point is not universally accepted, as Judge Ho demonstrated by citing cases on both sides of the question. Regardless of how the medical necessity point is resolved, however, the judge pointed out that under the 8th Amendment’s language – cruel and unusual – it is not unusual to deny sex reassignment surgery to inmates diagnosed with gender dysphoria – indeed, it is the norm – and thus such denial cannot be found to violate the Constitution as an “unusual punishment.”
Judge Barksdale’s dissent argued that Gibson has never been afforded the opportunity in the lower courts to present any evidence beyond the factual assertions in her complaint. “Accordingly,” she wrote, “as the majority notes correctly, this appeal springs from this very unusual and improper procedure and resulting sparse summary-judgment record, which is insufficient for summary judgment purposes,” so she dissented from “the majority’s reaching the merits of this action, which concerns the Eighth Amendment’s well-established requirements for medical treatment to be provided prisoners.”
Judge Ho specifically responds to Barksdale’s various objections by asserting that it would be a waste of time and judicial resources to remand the case to build a factual record because, as he found, categorical denial of a right to sex reassignment surgery is so well-founded in the existing case law and facts readily available from published sources, including the Kosilek decision, that there is no need to compile a record of the individual facts of Gibson’s case. The panel majority considers that Gibson’s factual allegations fail to generate material fact issues that would need to be resolved before the court could render a decision on the merits as a matter of law. To the majority, there is no disputing that medical practitioners are divided as to whether sex reassignment surgery is a necessary treatment, so there is no need for inquiry into Gibson’s individual case.
Judge Ho drew an analogy to an attempt by an inmate to obtain a drug that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved, pointing out that no court would find that a prisoner’s right to receive necessary treatment would be abridged by refusing to provide a treatment that has not been approved by the FDA. He also relies on some outdated information concerning practices under Medicaid and Medicare, as the Obama Administration withdrew the formal refusal to fund sex reassignment surgery under those programs, and there actually is a small but growing body of case law finding that these government programs must provide such treatment in appropriate cases, consistent with the Equal Protection Clause. There is also a U.S. Tax Court decision finding that the costs of sex reassignment surgery are tax deductible, based on its conclusion that it is a medical necessary treatment within the meaning of the Internal Revenue Code’s medical deduction provisions. (Law Notes reports below a new decision by the Iowa Supreme Court holding that refusing to provide such treatment under the state’s Medicaid program violated the Iowa civil rights law’s ban on gender identity discrimination. EerieAnna Good and Carol Beal v. Iowa Department of Human Services, 2019 WL 1086614, 2019 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 19 (March 8, 2019).) But what Ho is looking for is a professional medical consensus, not a legal consensus, and that has not yet been achieved, in the court’s view.
Gibson can seek rehearing en banc or petition the Supreme Court for further review. Failing that, however, the precedent is now set for the states of the 5th Circuit – Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi – as they were previously set for the 1st Circuit – Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico – that state corrections systems can categorically refuse to provide gender confirmation surgery to transgender inmates.