Guest Post

  • February 27, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Steve Sanders, Associate Professor of Law, Indiana University Maurer School of Law

    Donald Trump last week rescinded the Obama administration’s guidance to schools concerning their obligations to transgender students. This change in federal policy now requires the Supreme Court to decide whether and how to deal with its first major transgender rights case, which involves a transgender Virginia high school boy, Gavin Grimm.   

    We should hope that the Court decides to abstain and to dismiss the case as improvidently granted. That outcome would preserve Grimm’s victory in the lower court and avoid the potentially damaging results of the justices entering this fray too soon. Gavin Grimm’s achievement is too important – yet too fragile – to risk it becoming a vehicle for making bad law that could harm large numbers of transgender students now and in the future. 

    Unlike the four major gay/lesbian rights victories the Court handed down between 1996 and 2015, culminating in nationwide marriage equality, this case, Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., is not about grand constitutional principles like equality and liberty. The Trump administration’s action removed the primary issue in the case, which was one of administrative law: whether lower courts should have deferred to the Obama administration’s view that Title IX, the federal statute that was originally enacted to afford women equal opportunity in education, requires schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that are consistent with their gender identity rather than their biological sex. 

    With the administrative law question now moot, the Court could still decide the case as a matter of statutory interpretation: that is, regardless of the executive branch’s shifting policy views, how should Title IX apply to transgender students’ ability to use sex-segregated facilities? But by asking the parties for their views on how to proceed, the Court last week signaled it may at least be thinking about dismissing the case.

    The Court should do so. Grimm won in the Fourth Circuit, but his lawyers from the ACLU opposed certiorari and argued that it is too soon for the Supreme Court to authoritatively settle the Title IX question one way or the other. As other courts of appeals consider similar cases, Grimm’s attorneys wrote, those courts “will produce a consensus or a circuit split. In either event, the issue would benefit from further exploration in the lower courts.”

    There is a strong body of case law in the lower federal courts that a statute passed to combat sex discrimination can also be used to combat discrimination on the basis of gender identity. But almost all these cases involved adults in the context of employment discrimination. Grimm’s case is the first involving transgender students, schools and restrooms.

  • February 27, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Joseph Blocher, Professor of Law, Duke Law School

    On February 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rejected a Second Amendment challenge to Maryland’s ban on military-style “assault weapons” and detachable large-capacity magazines. The 10-4 en banc decision in Kolbe v. Hogan is a victory for gun regulation advocates. But it is also a case about alternatives: the court’s two alternative holdings, and the significance of the alternative “Arms” left available by Maryland’s statute.

    The central jurisprudential debate will be whether Kolbe is faithful to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms for private purposes, the “core” of which is self-defense. Heller also emphasized that a potentially wide range of gun regulation is constitutional, including bans on “dangerous and unusual” weapons—a class, the Court suggested, that might be equated with those not in “common use” for lawful purposes.

    In the decade since Heller, lower courts have almost unanimously adopted a two-part doctrinal test to evaluate the constitutionality of gun regulations. The first part of that test asks whether the relevant gun, person, or action falls within the scope of the Second Amendment—not all of them do, just as not all speech acts count as “speech” for purposes of the First. Felons, the mentally ill, and weapons of mass destruction generally fall entirely outside the scope of the right. If the Second Amendment is implicated, the second question is whether the regulation’s burdens are justifiable.

    The circuit courts have uniformly upheld assault weapons bans, but they’ve typically done so using the second part of the test—that is, by assuming that assault weapons are constitutional “Arms,” but that they can nonetheless be banned. Kolbe is notable because the court relied on both parts of the test, holding that the regulated guns and magazines fall outside the scope of the Second Amendment, and also that the ban would be constitutional even if they didn’t.

  • February 24, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Joseph Blocher, Professor of Law, Duke Law School

    Last week, the en banc Eleventh Circuit struck down a Florida law limiting doctors’ freedom to speak to their patients about guns. The decision in Wollschlaeger v. Governor—also known as the “Docs v. Glocks” case—is a victory for the First Amendment, and no threat to the Second.

    The American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and American Academy of Family Physicians all encourage their members to ask patients about firearms in the home, and to stress the importance of firearm safety. In 2011, based on what the court characterized as “six anecdotes” of patients complaining about doctors’ questions or comments about guns, Florida adopted the Firearms Owners’ Privacy Act, which restricted doctors’ ability to speak with their patients about firearms.

    As Eugene Volokh has explained, the law limited doctors’ ability to ask patients whether they own guns, generally forbade them to record disclosed information about gun ownership, and banned them from “unnecessarily harassing a patient about firearm ownership during an examination.”

    Each of these provisions, the Eleventh Circuit held, violates the First Amendment—even if they are not considered to be viewpoint-discriminatory, and even if evaluated under heightened rather than strict scrutiny. (The court severed and upheld a separate provision providing that doctors “may not discriminate against a patient based solely upon the patient’s exercise of the constitutional right to own and possess firearms or ammunition.”)

    Free speech advocates will find this result unsurprising, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s decision 2015 in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, which indicated a broad scope for the content-discrimination principle and the strict scrutiny that comes with it. And yet Wollschlaeger has drawn a great deal of attention, in part due to the common misperception that it presents a conflict between the First and Second Amendments.

  • February 23, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Harper Jean Tobin, Director of Policy, National Center for Transgender Equality

    Gavin Grimm, a high school senior in Virginia, had to sit through two public school board meetings during his sophomore year while his neighbors openly discussed his body parts and restroom use while pointedly referring to him as a “young lady,” calling him a “freak,” or comparing him to someone who thinks he is a dog. Gavin is a transgender boy. He had used the boys’ restroom at school for weeks with the full support of his fellow students before those school board meetings, where the school district ultimately decided to bar him from the boys’ restroom. For the over two years since then, Gavin has had to make a “walk of shame” to the nurse’s office each time he needs to use the restroom, a daily reminder that his school thinks he isn’t worthy of being treated like his peers.

    There are hundreds of thousands of transgender students like Gavin in schools all across the country. K–12 schools, as well as colleges and universities, began developing policies over a decade ago to answer everyday questions about supporting transgender students. Today, over 40 percent of U.S. K­­–12 students attend schools with local policies or statewide laws or guidelines that clearly support transgender students’ rights to learn in a safe environment and be treated according to their gender identity, including when it comes to using facilities. 

    Enter Title IX. Starting in 1999, a growing number of federal courts began to rule that federal sex discrimination laws applied to discrimination against transgender people. The rulings relied on two major Supreme Court precedents: Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989), which held that discrimination based on gender stereotypes violates Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; and Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services (1998), which stated that Title VII applies to any gender-based discrimination, not just specific scenarios Congress imagined in 1964. Eventually, five federal appeals courts and over a dozen district courts agreed that Title VII, Title IX, and other sex discrimination laws applied to anti-transgender bias, while only a handful disagreed.

  • February 23, 2017
    Guest Post

    by Louise Melling, Deputy Legal Director and Director of the Center for Liberty at the ACLU

    Religious freedom protects the right to our beliefs.  But does it protect the right of institutions to discriminate? The ACLU, staunch defender of religious liberty, says no. The answer for United States Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch appears to be yes. It is the province and duty of the Senate to press Judge Gorsuch on his stance during the confirmation hearings, as this question promises to be central to significant cases likely to come before Court in the near future.

    The opinions of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit that Judge Gorsuch joined and authored addressing Religious Freedom Restoration Act challenges to the contraceptive coverage rule of the Affordable Care Act raise troubling questions about his understanding of religious liberty, principles of equality, and their intersection.  Three points are worth noting.

    First, and most significant, in the Hobby Lobby case, the Tenth Circuit, ruling en banc, gave short shrift, and even embraced the harms, to women that would result were the rule enjoined as to Hobby Lobby.  The court acknowledged that women denied coverage (in that case to four methods of contraception) would suffer an economic burden, but went on to say, “Accommodations for religion frequently operate by lifting a burden from the accommodated party and placing it elsewhere.”   In other words, the court, with Judge Gorsuch joining, accepted that employees should bear the cost of their employer’s religion.

    That’s a position the Supreme Court declined to embrace in its Hobby Lobby decision. The Court affirmed the Tenth Circuit and ruled for the arts and crafts giant, but its ruling, unlike that of the Tenth Circuit, rested on the premise that the government could extend the accommodation it provided to religiously affiliated nonprofit entities to for-profit companies. Critically, that accommodation was designed to ensure that employees would continue to receive seamless coverage of contraception from the insurer. In the Court’s opinion, the effect then on “the women employed by Hobby Lobby … involved in these cases would be precisely zero.” The same cannot be said under the Tenth Circuit’s reasoning, which Judge Gorsuch joined.