Equality and Liberty

  • August 20, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Michael Vargas, Associate, Rimon, PC. Vargas is programming co-chair of the Bay Area Lawyer Chapter.

    When President Obama nominated then-Georgetown law professor Chai Feldblum for a seat on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2009, it was clear that the former counsel to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was going to shake up the Commission. As the first openly LGBT person to sit on the Commission, she did not disappoint. In 2012, the Commission announced its unanimous decision in Macy v. Holder (ATF), holding that discrimination against transgender employees was sex discrimination and actionable under Title VII. On July 16, 2015, the Commission issued an even more revolutionary decision in Complainant v. Foxx (FAA), holding that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is also sex discrimination and, therefore, must also be actionable under Title VII.

    In the EEOC’s decision, an unnamed complainant filed a complaint alleging that his supervisor would say things like “we don’t need to hear about that gay stuff” whenever the claimant would talk about his partner, and that he was subsequently denied a promotion. In dismissing the case, the FAA treated the complainant’s sexual orientation claim as separate from his sex discrimination claim and therefore not appealable to the EEOC.

    The EEOC summarily reversed the FAA, holding that sexual orientation was “inherently a sex-based consideration” and therefore was “necessarily an allegation of sex discrimination under Title VII.” The EEOC rested their decision on three different theories:

    First, the EEOC argued that sexual orientation necessarily involves treating employees differently because of their sex. To illustrate, the Commission gave the example of a male employee who is fired for having a picture of his husband on his desk when female employees with pictures of their husbands on their desks are not. This, the Commission declared, would be a classic case of sex discrimination.

    Second, the Commission found that sexual orientation discrimination was essentially associational discrimination, which is already recognized in the race discrimination context. If a person cannot be discriminated against because of the race of their spouse, then so too should they be protected from discrimination because of the gender of their spouse.

    Finally, the Commission recognized that discrimination against gays and lesbians is tinged with sex stereotypes, or expectations about what men or women should or should not do, which is yet another form of prohibited sex discrimination.

  • July 29, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Michael Waterstone, J. Howard Ziemann Fellow and Professor of Law, Loyola Law School Los Angeles 

    This week is the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, government programs and services, and privately owned places of accommodation.  It was and remains an ambitious law, requiring employers and business owners to make reasonable accommodations, at their own expense, to be more accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities.  And although there is still a long way to go, the ADA should be celebrated for its role in moving people with disabilities into the mainstream of society.

    Both the ADA and the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act (passed in 2008) passed with remarkable bipartisan support.  Disability has never entered the culture wars, and in many ways disability rights have transcended traditional political commitments.  But while legislative political elites in both parties have been very comfortable taking pro-disability rights positions, the public at large is less aware of and sometimes hostile to the ideals and goals of the disability rights movements.  Everyone likes and identifies with a feel good story about athletes who “overcome” disability.  But how many business owners have welcomed the idea of making physical or programmatic changes to accommodate difference?

    Although the ADA has a constitutional basis, it is primarily celebrated as a legislative success.  Lawyers and advocates who bring disability law cases are reluctant to engage constitutional law as a source of relief for people with disabilities.  And they have good reasons to be wary.  The ADA offers ample protections, moving deep into the private sphere in a way constitutional law could not.  And the doctrinal resting place of disability constitutional law is a bad one – under Cleburne, government classifications on the basis of disability are only entitled to rational basis scrutiny. Lawyers in the disability rights movement know how to count to five and have reasoned that the Supreme Court is an inhospitable place for equality claims generally.

    At this important milestone in the disability rights movement, I want to suggest that the next 25 years should include more of an engagement with disability constitutional law.  I take this position for several reasons.  First, there is a lot that is unclear, and potentially up for grabs, about equality law.  Cases like Windsor and Obergefell do not fit neatly into conventional tiered Equal Protection Clause analysis, instead looking at some mix of the nature of the interest protected and the legislative classification.  Simply accepting that Cleburne closed the constitutional canon on all disability claims does not sufficiently engage these evolving notions of equality.

  • July 17, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    When Harvard Law School’s Laurence Tribe delivered the Chautauqua Institution’s 11th annual Robert H. Jackson Lecture on the U.S. Supreme Court last week, he had a lot of material to cover. The latest Supreme Court Term was eventful. From the Court’s historic recognition of same-sex marriage equality in Obergefell to its decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act health care exchanges in King, June 2015 produced decisions that will impact the way millions of Americans live their lives.

    While Professor Tribe discussed the significance of the high court’s opinions, he also addressed recent “momentous events that shook our country and complicated the meaning of our Supreme Court’s decisions,” including the racially motivated massacre at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston which preceded the Court’s ruling in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans by less than 24 hours.

    Tribe says, “My hope is to tie the electrifying events of June together with [former Supreme Court Justice] Jackson’s eloquence and pragmatism, to arrive at a brighter and larger sense of that Constitution, a less cramped understanding of constitutional law, and a more capacious vision of the Supreme Court’s role in giving the Constitution life.”

    A full transcript of the speech is available here and here, and the video can be viewed below.

     

  • July 17, 2015
    Video Interview

    by Paul Guequierre

    The LGBT rights movement has made extraordinary progress in just the past few years, let alone the past 11 years since Massachusetts became the first state to usher in marriage equality. Now, of course, marriage equality is the law of the land from sea to shining sea. Many people have put the rainbow flags away, thinking the fight for full equality is over. The reality is though, the fight is far from over.

    At the 2015 ACS National Convention, Janson Wu, executive director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) and the 2012 David Carliner Public Interest Award recipient, sat down and gave us his take on the progress the LGBT rights movement has made, where we’ve been, where we’re going and where we need to take the fight.

    “Now you can see what seemed an impossible victory in 2003 and now seeming almost inevitable in 2015 and I think that’s kind of the theme of our work going forward: what are those kind of impossible dreams we can think of right now that we can make inevitable in five, ten, fifteen years,” Wu said.

    In the interview, Wu also noted the role litigation plays in the LGBT rights movement, not only as a legal remedy to discrimination, but also as a tool to educate Americans.

    “Litigation is actually a great vehicle for education because what we know is that the public can understand and really sympathize with stories of harm. When you have litigation, you generally have a plaintiff who is harmed, so we always try to, when appropriate, use our plaintiffs as a way of educating.”

    After marriage equality, what are the issues the LGBT community faces? Where are the legal efforts in the movement taking place and where will they head in the future? View the full interview with Janson Wu below. 

     

  • July 15, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Reuben Guttman, partner, Guttman, Buschner & Brooks, PLLC; Guttman is a member of the ACS Board of Directors.

    *This piece originally appeared on The Global Legal Post.

    It turns out that an older Atticus Finch – the lawyer who in earlier years represented a black man in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird – is, according to author Harper’s Lee’s recently released book Go Set a Watchman, a racist. From the front pages of the New York Times to talk shows across the airwaves, the fictional Finch is being dissected as if he were a real life hero that has fallen from grace. There have been questions about whether the author – now 89 years old --  was too mentally infirm to consent to the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Investigators from the State of Alabama reportedly even visited Ms. Lee at her nursing home to determine whether the author’s decision to publish the novel, written prior to Mockingbird, was the product of elder abuse.

    Why has this caused such a stir and why is Atticus Finch so beloved? To Kill a Mockingbird was published six years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), a decision that to some degree signaled that the legal system could be a legitimate tool to battle discrimination. Finch, of course, was a white lawyer in a southern town representing a black man. And, perhaps and maybe just perhaps, he became a symbol for others not directly impacted by racism to take on the battle in the coming years. I am, in particular, reminded of the white Justice Department Lawyers, including John Doar, who litigated voting rights cases in Mississippi in the 1960’s.

    That a white man in a southern town could advocate on behalf of a black man was an important message in 1960. Back then, Harper Lee did the nation a service when she created Atticus Finch. 

    The publication of Go Set a Watchman comes seven years after the election of Barak Obama lulled some into belief that discrimination had seen its day, while providing others with the perception that discrimination in this era could go undetected.  

    The tragic shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, among other recent events, was a reminder that discrimination (to loosely borrow a phrase from the poet Langston Hughes) is festering like a sore that we notice only when it runs. Yet, look hard enough, search the internet, and it is easy to find cyber space meetings of the Klu Klux Klan and the most vulgar reminders that racism and antisemitism are unfortunately alive.

    The events of Charleston were tragic and of course noticeable. Unfortunately discrimination too often is not noticeable except to the victim. Employers biased by their own perceptions can still, 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, make decisions based on race, religion or gender that are almost impossible to redress in a court of law.      

    I suppose that there is some sadness in learning the true prejudices of Atticus Finch. But maybe Harper Lee has once again done the nation a service by reminding us that racism – and the discrimination that it produces – can be harboured by the most unlikely of characters.