With the heated controversy over the Obama administration’s policy on the rights of transgender people about to reach the Supreme Court, the dispute continues to spread in federal courthouses across the nation. It is not yet clear, though, what effect that spread will have on the Justices’ view of their own role at this point.
The prospect has now arisen that there could be conflicting results emerging in the lower courts, with some favoring the federal policy and others barring its enforcement. If that develops, it could enhance the chances that the Court would be drawn in, even if unwillingly.
So far, only one federal judge has issued a formal order explicitly enforcing the policy, and no judge has yet acted to forbid enforcement, although one judge has temporarily told the government not to cut off federal education funds to schools in North Carolina. A group of states have asked for a nationwide order against the policy, and a judge in Texas is considering that plea on an expedited basis. The Obama administration is asking a judge in North Carolina to stop that state from enforcing a new state law that restricts how transgender people may use restrooms in state facilities.
The situation in the lower courts right now is this: five separate lawsuits are moving forward in North Carolina, split up between two different judges, with one of those cases by the federal government; a group of twelve states joined by Maine’s governor are suing the federal government in the case in Texas, while a separate group of ten states have just filed a lawsuit against the government in a Nebraska federal court; a case filed by parents and students in opposition to the policy is underway in Illinois, and the case that may reach the Supreme Court this coming week is moving rapidly in Virginia.
The dispute focuses on three federal laws: Title IX, banning discrimination based on sex in federally funded education programs; Title VI, barring discrimination in the workplace based on sex, and a part of the Violence Against Women Act, which explicitly bars discrimination based on “gender identity.” It is the Obama administration’s view that all three of those laws assure equality based on “gender identity” — that is, the situation in which a person has an identity different from that assigned to them at birth.
In the lawsuits, apart from the one filed by the administration and the one by the ACLU in North Carolina, states, school districts, parents and students are making a variety of challenges, Among others, they are claiming that Title IX and Title VII were never meant to reach “gender identity,” and, even if they were, the government did not use the proper procedure in adopting the policy, or that the government is unconstitutionally attempting to force states to obey the policy by coercion — threatening to cut off billions in federal education money.
Already, in the Virginia case (G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board), a federal trial judge in Newport News, VA, has issued an order requiring that school board to allow a 16-year-old transgender student to use a school restroom that conforms to his identity as a boy (at birth, he was assigned the gender identity of a girl). That order is now due to take effect on September 6, when the new school year opens.
But that very order is at the center of the challenge that the Gloucester County school board has said it will be filing in the Supreme Court, probably on Tuesday. As of today, its plan is awaiting word on how the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit will react to a request to delay the order so that the board can appeal to the Supreme Court. The board has asked the Circuit Court to decide by tomorrow on the delay request.
U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar of Newport News has refused to delay his order in favor of G.G., who is about to enter his senior year in high school. Judge Doumar said he had no choice but to bar the school board’s restrooms policy because the Fourth Circuit Court had ruled earlier that the Obama administration had the authority to adopt its policy under Title IX.
That case is the furthest along among the cases, and its rapid pace is typical of what is happening in all of the current cases.
Here, in brief, are a few details about the other cases:
In North Carolina, U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder of Winston-Salem is handling four cases: the federal government’s challenge to state law “H.B. 2” on transgender restroom use; a case filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in favor of the federal policy and against H.B. 2, a lawsuit filed by leaders of the state legislature opposing the policy, and a lawsuit filed by parents and students concerned about student privacy, who oppose the policy.
Also in North Carolina, U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle of Elizabeth City is reviewing a case filed against the policy by the state’s governor, Patrick J. McCrory, and another state official. Judge Boyle refused to transfer that case to Judge Schroeder, as another federal judge had done with two of the cases now before Schroeder in Winston-Salem.
In Fort Worth, Texas, U.S. District Judge Reed J. O’Connor is proceeding with a case filed by twelve states, plus Maine’s governor, Paul LePage. The judge has put on an expedited schedule the states’ request for a nationwide injunction against the federal policy.
In Lincoln, Neb., U.S. District Judge John M. Gerrard has just been assigned the case filed last week by ten other states (none involved in the Texas case).
In Chicago, U.S. District Judge Jorge L. Alonso is beginning to receive briefs filed on a request for a temporary bar of enforcement of the policy, in a case filed b a group named Students and Parents for Privacy.
Although the Obama administration for several years had held its view about the right to equality based on gender identity, it has moved energetically since early May to enforce that policy, warning school officials across the country that they must get their programs into line with the policy. When state officials in North Carolina balked, the government has recently asked that they be ordered to comply.
Although the focus of the controversy is, in most of the cases, on the question of equal access to restrooms, the broader meaning of what Congress had in mind in outlawing discrimination “based on sex” has turned the dispute over transgender equality into a major new civil rights frontier.
It is almost a certainty that one or more of the cases will reach the Justices during the Court’s next Term, starting in October. The Virginia case of G.G. could provide an early indicator of how the Court might react.
The school board plans to file its request for delay of the policy, and of Judge Doumar’s order, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. He handles emergency legal matters from the geographic area of the Fourth Circuit. That includes Virginia and North Carolina, among other states. Roberts has the authority to act on his own, or share a decision with his colleagues.
Although the Court is now in its summer recess, Justices are in a position to handle such emergency filings, even if they are not in Washington.