The following is a guest post by Erik Lampmann, a 2011 Young People For (YP4) Fellow. It is cross-posted on the Alliance for Justice blog and the YP4 blog.
Federal courts routinely hand down judgments that affect everyday Americans at an immediate, painful, and personal level – for good or ill.
Consider the case of Seamus Johnston, a transgender student expelled by the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown (UPJ) for his use of male restrooms and gym facilities on campus. When he sought redress for his experiences at the hands of UPJ, U.S. District Judge Kim Gibson, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled he had no room to claim discrimination since he was being treated in accordance with his sex as assigned at birth and had not had sex reassignment surgery.
In some ways, Johnson was warranted in thinking he was free to live openly as a transgender man since UPJ offers gender identity and expression protections under its student nondiscrimination statement. Indeed, Johnson had lived openly and without significant difficulty as a man since 2009 — even having taken advantage of men-only exercise courses. Only in 2011 was Johnson first confronted for using a men’s locker room. After issuing Johnson citations, barring him from certain facilities, and eventually arresting him, the university expelled him for his attempt to use the bathroom in which he felt most at peace and which he believed he was permitted to use by university policy. In his appeal for justice, Johnson didn’t ask for much — simply that a university that purports to protect students based on “gender identity and expression” allow him a modicum of relief as a transgender person rather than criminalizing his attempts to live authentically.
Essentially, Judge Gibson acknowledged Johnson’s self-identification as a transgender man, but she didn’t think it really mattered in the context of the Equal Protection Clause or Title IX. Flatly ignoring guidance from the Department of Education encouraging institutions of higher education to recognize transgender and gender non-conforming students’ right to protections under Title IX, Judge Gibson left Johnston, and other transgender students, without protection from sex discrimination. She wrote:
While Plaintiff might identify his gender as male, his birth sex is female … It is this fact … that is fatal to Plaintiff’s sex discrimination claim. Regardless of how gender and gender identity are defined, the law recognizes certain distinctions between male and female on the basis of birth sex. Thus, even though Plaintiff is a transgender male, his sex is female.
In sum, this decision reflects a sobering reality for LGBTQ people, particularly transgender and gender non-conforming individuals: The government — more specifically, a judge — holds the power to determine if the law protects how you define yourself.
This example dramatizes just one way that our courts fail to live up to the promise of the motto “equal justice under law” by protecting the vulnerable among us from exclusion and discrimination. I’ll admit that several years ago the result in this case might have led me to give up on the courts as an avenue for change.
Recent decisions from the Supreme Court and other federal courts have prompted some progressives to view the courts as a once-relevant institution home only to disconnected jurists. When we as progressives write off the courts and treat them as spaces where our communities were never meant to triumph, we concede the power to speak from our lived experience as those affected by the law and to shift the balance of power within the judiciary.
In reality, the legal knowledge of our communities paired with our deeply personal understanding of how the courts’ decisions impact real people gives us a tremendous power to affect the composition of the courts and to create legal precedents that respect rather than ignore our communities’ needs.
Seamus Johnston’s experiences with the justice system are then instructive for progressives building long-term judicial strategies. His loss in the Western District of Pennsylvania is but one battle in a much longer struggle for social justice.
The courts have to matter for LGBTQ Americans and so many others who find themselves on the losing end of cases like Johnston’s. They have to matter because we cannot afford to write off institutions, elected officials, or organizations as permanent friends or enemies. Rather, if we truly believe another world is possible, we have to build it brick by brick, precedent by precedent, judge by judge.
Yesterday, PFAW Foundation Senior Fellow Jamie Raskin previewed his upcoming report, The Supreme Court in the Citizens United Era, during a member telebriefing. Executive Vice President Marge Baker and Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon also joined the call to answer questions from members and discuss PFAW efforts to promote fair and just courts. Drew Courtney, Director of Communications for PFAW, moderated.
To kick off the call, Raskin reviewed another period during which the Court granted unprecedented constitutional rights to corporations. Lochner v. NY, Raskin explained, began an era in which government at every level was prevented from interfering with corporate contracts—and thereby prevented from passing sensible health and safety regulations.
Today, said Raskin, we’re in an analogous period, with the Supreme Court now using the First Amendment as an excuse for expanding or inventing the political and religious rights of corporations. This time, it’s beyond what we’ve ever seen before; the Citizens United and the Hobby Lobby cases both demonstrate how the Court is putting the interests of corporations over the rights of people and making it more difficult to hold corporations accountable for their actions. Other cases allow corporations to insulate themselves through a host of legal immunities while at the same time, they’re able to spend unlimited amounts of money influencing who gets elected to office.
In responding to a question from a PFAW member, Baker outlined the two key ways to fight the Court’s trend of empowering corporations over people: Elect Presidents who will nominate, and Senators who will confirm, Justices who share the ideology that corporations shouldn’t be favored in their legal rights over people; and amend the Constitution, which PFAW and other groups are working on now. She also directed PFAW members to www.united4thepeople.org and www.getmoneyoutaction.org to get more involved in these issues.
You can listen to the full telebriefing here:
If anyone had said four months ago that we’d still be waiting for the Senate to hold a confirmation vote for Loretta Lynch, no one would have believed it. Yet here we are. Although she was approved by the Judiciary Committee three weeks ago, Mitch McConnell just can’t bring himself to schedule a floor vote for her.
Lynch is supremely qualified to be AG. Progressives and conservatives alike have written to the Senate praising Lynch and urging her confirmation. In fact, not a single one of the Republicans’ own witnesses at her confirmation hearing actually opposed her confirmation.
Yet Republicans in the Senate continue to make a partisan brawl out of a consensus nomination.
Until now, regardless of which party was in the White House or in control of the Senate, the attorney general nominee has gotten a confirmation vote very quickly upon committee approval. But Lynch’s nomination has been languishing on the Senate floor for nearly three weeks, longer than the wait-time for the past five attorney general nominees combined.
McConnell has jettisoned his promise to allow a vote this week. At the beginning of next week, Lynch will have been waiting for a floor vote as long as the previous seven attorneys general combined:
McConnell’s latest excuse for delay is that the Senate needs to vote on a human trafficking bill first … a bipartisan bill that Republicans politicized by inserting an anti-choice provision.
The Lynch nomination was a great opportunity for Republicans to show the American people that they can govern. Instead, they’ve shown the American people that they won’t pass up any opportunity to play politics, as they pile unheard-of delay after delay on the person who should already have been confirmed as our nation’s first African American woman attorney general.
In an important victory for fair courts and the principle that justice is available to all, an appeals court in California today issued a decision granting a new trial for an undocumented immigrant whose immigration status was revealed to jurors despite its irrelevance to the issues in the case. People For the American Way had joined the UC Hastings Appellate Project and the ACLU of Southern California in submitting an amicus brief in the case, Velasquez v. Centrome, Inc. dba Advanced Biotech.
In this case, a former factory worker named Wilfredo Velasquez sued Advanced Biotech, Inc. for its alleged failure to tell his employer about the harms of a chemical he was exposed to while on the job — exposure which he says led to a devastating lung disease. But during the jury selection, the trial judge revealed to jurors that Velasquez was undocumented, an action that, in the words of our amicus brief, “unnecessarily injected prejudice into the selection process, making it impossible to know whether Mr. Velasquez received his constitutionally guaranteed fair trial by impartial jurors.” The threat to Velasquez’s right to a fair trial became clear when the jury concluded that Advanced Biotech had indeed been negligent — yet still awarded no damages to Velasquez, meaning that he, in effect, lost his case.
Fortunately, today the appeals court righted this wrong by granting Velasquez a new trial. The state appeals court noted that “cases both in California and in multiple other jurisdictions have recognized the strong danger of prejudice attendant with the disclosure of a party’s status as an undocumented immigrant.” Indeed, we have seen how undocumented immigrants face ongoing hostility in our country.
As the amicus brief notes, every person, regardless of immigration status, has a right to “a verdict rendered by an impartial jury.” It is a right that must remain a foundational principle of our judicial system.
Yesterday PFAW Foundation joined the National Women’s Law Center, the law firm Hogan Lovells, and close to 70 other organizations in submitting an amicus brief in King v. Burwell, the pending Supreme Court case on tax subsidies for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The brief notes that a decision in favor of those challenging the subsidies would threaten a central goal of the law: making access to health insurance possible for millions of people across the country.
The ramifications of a wrong decision in this case could be enormous, causing serious harm in the lives of people now relying on health insurance through the ACA. If the core tax subsidy provision were to be struck down, the brief points out, women of color would be especially hard-hit:
These tax credits are critical. Over 9 million women, who would otherwise go without affordable health insurance, are eligible to benefit from them, including a disproportionate number of women of color.
…The tax credits are not only critical to women’s health; they are critical to the ACA’s continued viability. Congress encouraged participation in the insurance market primarily through the careful interrelation of the individual responsibility provision, market reforms, and tax-credit provisions. Eliminate the tax credits, and the system unravels.
The amicus brief highlights the stories of many real women who depend on the tax credits to access needed health care:
Marilyn Schramm, 63, is a 26-year cancer survivor from Austin, Texas. She endured treatment for cervical cancer in her thirties and has experienced life-long complications from that treatment that have required surgeries since then. Marilyn retired several years ago. When her COBRA rights were exhausted, Marilyn was forced to go without insurance for six months because of her “preexisting conditions.” But in January 2014, Marilyn could finally purchase insurance on the federally-facilitated Exchange in Texas, with at least half of her premium covered by the ACA’s tax credits.
Marilyn has now been diagnosed with colon cancer; following surgery, she began chemotherapy this month. Her coverage depends on the ACA’s prohibition on excluding those with pre-existing conditions, and on its premium tax credits: With her modest retirement income, Marilyn is unsure whether or how she could pay her insurance premium without the tax credits.
As we have noted before, this case is a blatantly political attack intended to do serious damage to the Affordable Care Act. The millions of women and men across the country who rely on the ACA in order to access health care ranging from preventative screenings to cancer treatments deserve far better.