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Donald Trump last week rescinded the Obama administration’s guidance to schools concerning their obligations to transgender students.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lower courts should have deferred to the Obama administration’s view that Title IX, the federal statute that was originally enacted to afford women equal opportunity in education, requires schools to allow transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that are consistent with their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.