GERALD LYNN BOSTOCK v. CLAYTON COUNTY, GEORGIA, No. 17-1618; ALTITUDE EXPRESS, INC., ET AL. v. MELISSA ZARDA AND WILLIAM ALLEN MOORE, JR., CO-INDEPENDENT EXECUTORS OF THE ESTATE OF DONALD ZARDA, No 17-1623; R.G. & G.R. HARRIS FUNERAL HOMES, INC. v. EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION,ET AL., No. 18-107 (June 15, 2020)
Today the United States Supreme Court held that interpretation of the statutory language of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, compels the conclusion that sexual orientation and transexual status, inextricably bound to sex, are within the meaning of the statute prohibiting discrimination because of sex.
The decision will undoubtedly be hailed as a great victory for rights activists while the opinion of the majority and the opinions of the dissenting justices will undoubtedly provide grist for the jurisprudential mill for years to come.
Justice Gorsuch, writing for the majority, observed that what Congress foresaw when it enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not mean that the legislation must be myopically interpreted according to that time:
“…the limits of the drafters’ imaginations supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands. When the express terms of a statute give us our answer and extratextual considerations suggest another, it’s no contest. Only the written word is the law, and all persons are entitled to its benefit.”
Slip. Op. at 2.
Each of the plaintiffs was a long term employee and each was terminated from employment because of sexual orientation or transgender status. Employers argued that neither orientation nor transgender status are part of Title VII and that, therefore, the terminations were not discriminatory. Three federal circuit courts of appeal interpreted Title VII without consensus.
Statutory construction looks to the “ordinary public meaning” of words at the time of a law’s enactment. This inhibits judicial meddling in legislative affairs and promotes soundness in public perception of rights and obligations.
Assuming that in 1964 “sex” meant biological sex, the majority wrote, then “because of sex” meant “by reason of” or “on account of” sex. This establishes but-for causation and obviates the need for parsing concomitant or serial causes. Once an employment decision is made that would not be made if an individual’s sex were different, liability attaches and it is immaterial if other causes are present. It does an employer no good to point to other reasons once sex is a reason for a decision. Indeed, over time the Congress has amended the Civil Rights Act to include liability where sex is a “motivating factor” in a decision.
The Court rejected the employers’ argument that discrimination could only be in reference to others similarly situated, as the statute repeatedly references individuals. It is of no moment if an employer generally treats women well if in an individual case a decision was based unlawfully on sex.
If sex cannot be relevant to employment decisions, the Court reasoned, then neither can sexual orientation or status, as both are inextricable from sex.
Since enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination “because of sex” has come to include discrimination based on habitual perceptions or stereotypes or actuarial assumptions.
It is no answer to say that Congress could not or did not foresee sexual orientation or status as a concern at the time of enactment when the statutory language addresses sex and orientation and status are inseparably related to sex.
It makes no difference, the majority found, that orientation or status was not included in the statutory language where those traits are inextricably interwoven in sex.
Concluding that orientation or status is not within Title VII based on Congress’ failure to amend Title VII where it has directly considered sexual orientation in other statutes would be speculation.
Asserting that meanings have changed since 1964 is unavailing where the plain meaning of the statute supplies the answer needed. The breadth of Title VII as it has been interpreted over time cannot be denied. As such, the Court’s decision in this case is not unusual in light of the many unanticipated decisions flowing from the Civil Rights Act in the more than half century since its passage.
Three Dissenting Justices, Two Dissenting Opinions. Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas, chastised the majority for having confused textualism with legislation, performing the former poorly and usurping Congress’ function in the latter.
The majority has engaged in a “false flag” textualist operation, as neither sexual orientation nor transgender status appear in the text and the form of ‘textualism’ which would permit the legislative updates provided by the majority was denounced by textualism’s primary proponent, Justice Antonin Scalia.
Justice Alito notes that an exhaustive review of dictionaries failed to disclose any incorporation of orientation or status within the meaning of “sex.” Moreover, orientation and status are in fact separable from “sex.” Plaintiffs’ counsel conceded at oral argument that if an employer were to prohibit hiring on the basis of gay or transgender status but hiring would be without knowledge of biological sex, this practice would not be discrimination “because of sex.”
This very concession makes the majority’s reasoning all the more lacking, Justice Alito found. Moreover, if an employer is unaware of a potential employee’s sexual orientation or status, that employer cannot be found liable for intentional discrimination on that basis.
Justice Alito sees a rich irony in the majority’s effective statutory amendment under the guise of ‘textualism’. Although the majority purports to interpret the statutory language as it is written, the majority overlooks more than a half century’s interpretations of that text, all the while declaring its ‘judicial humility’.
The ramifications of the Court’s decision cannot be overlooked. The decision may impact facilities access, sports participation, housing, religious employment, and health insurance coverage for gender reassignment. Speech freedoms may be implicated by forms of address and language.
Writing separately in dissent, Justice Kavanaugh opined that Congress and not the Supreme Court must address the question before the Court. While stressing his position that sexual orientation and transgender stratus must fall within the law, the decision maker on this policy belongs to the legislative branch.
Justice Kavanaugh questioned the utility of the literalist textualism that he saw in the majority’s view, as the law requires that interpretation look to the ordinary, not the literal, meanings of words and phrases. A rigid literal approach is not a good textual approach, according to textualism’s proponents. And literal interpretations, disregarding as they may the everyday meaning of words, fail to perform the essential work of the law, which is to put the citizenry on notice of what the law is.
Equally problematic is the majority’s decision to rewrite history in creating its new interpretation. To disregard history serves no goal well, no matter how laudable in principle that goal may be. Historically sexual orientation discrimination has been seen as a form of discrimination separate from sex discrimination.
While it is understandable that those affected and those who support them would find joy in the majority’s decision, Justice Kavanaugh fears that the majority’s methodology will be questioned by many, and that, as a result, many will simply not buy it. A lack of confidence in the opinion is of little aid to those supporting the conclusion and undermines confidence in the Court as an institution.