Time and Tide and Textualism: Supreme Court Holds “Sex” in Civil Rights Act Includes Orientation and Transexual Status

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.

17-1618 Bostock v. Clayton County (06_15_2020)

 

 

 

 

 

“Leveling Down:” Dismantling Problematic Programs to Remediate Constitutional Conflict: Attractive to Some Supreme Court Justices, Insufficient to Others

Espinoza v. Montana, No. 18-1195.  Oral argument held January 22, 2020.


Oral argument for the Espinoza case shed little light on its outcome, although it did underscore that the Supreme Court justices hold divergent views on what is appropriate not only constitutionally, but with respect to addressing constitutional error.  

Justice Ginsburg intimated that the parents who brought suit have no taxpayer standing as they are not directly involved with the Montana tax credit in issue.  She further suggested that the state supreme court was not unreasonable in “leveling down,” or avoiding constitutional problems by dispensing with the scholarship program entirely.  

Justice Sotomayor signaled disdain for any state involvement in religion, pointing to history for support, much as others point to history for support for the opposite view, that the framers would abhor hostility toward religion but rather sought to guard against preferential government treatment for one faith over another.

Other justices asked how the circumstances of the Espinoza case would even conceivably be acceptable if the issue were race rather than religion. Justice Alito reminded counsel that it is not really possible to overlook the coincidence of the enactment of Blaine Amendments with the wave of immigration that accompanied the Irish potato famine. 

Justice Breyer noted that there is no Establishment Clause respecting race, demolishing the “no distinction” point of view respecting race and religion.  The justice likewise worried about how a determination that the state might permissibly be involved in religion by means of the tax credit would impact subsequent funding decisions.  His principal worry seemed to be that a determination that religion could not be excluded would compel inclusion of religion in all state funding.  

Justice Kagan, noting her joinder in the Trinity Lutheran decision, asked whether the Espinoza case was not distinguishable from Trinity LutheranTrinity Lutheran concluded that it is unconstitutional to preclude participation in neutral and generally available government programs because of religion.  In this case, she stated, religion is directly involved: the issue is payment of money to religious institutions.

Justice Gorsuch interjected for clarity the question whether a federal court may aptly intervene where a state court has made an error under federal law, intimating that the question whether the state court error was active or passive is a red herring.

The Chief Justice questioned the role of intent in discrimination cases, suggesting, without more, that there may be some relevance for Espinoza. Thee Chief Justice cited a 1977 case holding that an ordinance with discriminatory impact was nonetheless constitutional because its enactment was without discriminatory intent.  

There are no certainties in the law, but it is not irrational to speculate that there will be no unanimity in any determination the court makes. The divergence in thought will not unlikely be reflected in a multiplicity of opinions.

Massachusetts Trial Court Considers the Constitutional Contours of End of Life Care

Kligler and another v. Attorney General Maura T. Healy and another, No. 2016-03254-F (December 31, 2019)


Two physicians, one terminally ill and one whose practice includes care for the terminally ill, sought declaratory relief upholding as constitutional the prescription of fatal doses of medication for patient self-administration, called Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID) and upholding as constitutional discussion of such assistance and referrals to sources competent and capable of providing such prescriptions.

The physicians were wholly successful in obtaining, with no opposition from the state, the court’s opinion that the discussion of assistance in dying and the making of referrals to obtain such assistance is protected by the First Amendment.  In that no prosecution is likely to ensue from such discussions, the court declined to enjoin the state from so doing.

The court declined to find the characterization of medical assistance in dying as involuntary homicide to be unconstitutional or to find the application of involuntary manslaughter statutes to such aid to be unconstitutionally vague.  The United States Supreme Court has twice stated that substantive due process principles do not protect a physician’s right to participate in assisting in dying. Moreover, concepts of criminal law have long traditions leaving no one to guess what is proscribed within the meaning of “involuntary manslaughter.”

In the absence of a fundamental constitutional right, the state need only show that the prohibition of prescriptive assistance in dying serves and is reasonably related to an important government interest.  The preservation of life, the prevention of suicide, the protection of vulnerable populations, and the maintenance of sound medical practices and ethics are such interests, the court observed. In light of the irrevocability of administration of fatal medications, the court concluded that the proscription against such prescriptions is not unreasonable.

The court rejected the physicians’ arguments that a patient’s ingestion of the fatal doses of medications would serve as an intervening cause of death, relieving the physician of liability, where death is the known outcome at the time of issuing the prescription.  Nor was the court persuaded that the absence of coercion could change the result where, as before, death would be the known and intended outcome of the act of prescription.

The court likewise rejected equal protection challenges, observing that the law can and does respect the privacy and autonomy rights that attach to the refusal of medical treatment while concomitantly finding no corollary in any right to administer death.  Moreover, the active prescription of lethal doses of drugs differs from the permissible cessation of extraordinary treatments, the voluntary cessation of eating and drinking, or the provision of palliative pain management. The first produces death as a result of active physician intervention,  while the latter permits death to ensue as a natural result of underlying disease or debility.

The trial court noted that as social thought changes, so too may the law.  The trial court articulated its decision according to current precedent, yet noted change has occurred in the thirty years since the controlling decisions issued.  Of equal if not greater importance, the court concluded, the determination of the parameters of end of life care are not best addressed by the courts, but should be undertaken by the legislature.  

2019 12 31 Kligler v. Healy (Suffolk Sup. Ct.)