Federal Court Blocks Department Of Education Guidelines On Bathroom Access For Transgender Students
A Federal Court has barred the Federal Government from enforcing guidelines on the rights of transgender students in public schools.
A Federal District Court Judge in Texas has issued an order blocking the Obama Administration from enforcing guidelines it issued earlier this year regarding allowing transgender students to use the restroom or other facilities with which they identify:
A federal judge on Sunday blocked the Obama administration from enforcing new guidelines that were intended to expand restroom access for transgender students across the country.
Judge Reed O’Connor of the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Texas said in a 38-page ruling, which he said should apply nationwide, that the government had not complied with federal law when it issued “directives which contradict the existing legislative and regulatory text.”
Judge O’Connor, whom President George W. Bush nominated to the federal bench, said that not granting an injunction would put states “in the position of either maintaining their current policies in the face of the federal government’s view that they are violating the law, or changing them to comply with the guidelines and cede their authority over this issue.”
The judge’s order, in a case brought by officials from more than a dozen states, is a victory for social conservatives in the continuing legal battles over the restroom guidelines, which the federal government issued this year. The culture war over the rights of transgender people, and especially their right to use public bathrooms consistent with their gender identities, has emerged as an emotional cause among social conservatives.
The Obama administration’s assertion that the rights of transgender people in public schools and workplaces are protected under existing laws against sex discrimination has been condemned by social conservatives, who said the administration was illegally intruding into local affairs and promoting a policy that would jeopardize the privacy and safety of school children.
The ruling could deter the administration from bringing new legal action against school districts that do not allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice.
“We are pleased that the court ruled against the Obama administration’s latest illegal federal overreach,” Attorney General Ken Paxton of Texas said in a statement on Monday. “This president is attempting to rewrite the laws enacted by the elected representatives of the people, and is threatening to take away federal funding from schools to force them to conform. That cannot be allowed to continue, which is why we took action to protect states and school districts, who are charged under state law to establish a safe and disciplined environment conducive to student learning.”
Attorney General Ken Paxton of Texas praised the judge’s ruling.
“The court prevented the federal government from relying on its flawed, unlawful guidance documents to schools and employers in an injunction that is effective nationwide,” he said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for the Justice Department, Dena W. Iverson, said the department was disappointed with the decision and was reviewing its options.
In a statement, several civil rights organizations that had submitted a brief opposing the injunction called the ruling unfortunate and premature.
“A ruling by a single judge in one circuit cannot and does not undo the years of clear legal precedent nationwide establishing that transgender students have the right to go to school without being singled out for discrimination,” the groups — Lambda Legal; the American Civil Liberties Union and the A.C.L.U. of Texas; the National Center for Lesbian Rights; the Transgender Law Center; and G.L.B.T.Q. Legal Advocates & Defenders — said in their statement.
The ultimate impact of the Texas decision is unclear and likely to be limited, legal experts said. For one thing, more senior courts in other regions have agreed with the administration that transgender students and workers are protected by existing laws against sex discrimination, and their decisions will not be altered by the Texas ruling.
Also, the decision will not necessarily affect the outcome of other current cases. In the most prominent one, a federal court in North Carolina is weighing almost identical issues in suits brought by civil rights groups and the Department of Justice that seek to block a state law requiring people in government buildings, including public schools, to use bathrooms that correspond to the gender listed on their birth certificates.
Adding another major note of uncertainty, the United States Supreme Court has temporarily blocked a decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that required a school district in Virginia to allow a transgender boy to use the boys’ bathrooms. The Supreme Court issued a temporary injunction until it decides, probably this fall, whether to hear the case.
If the Supreme Court does take the case and reaches a majority decision one way or another, then existing rulings by district and appeals courts could be superseded. If the Supreme Court takes the Virginia case but then is divided, four to four, on the issues, the Fourth Circuit’s existing decision in favor of transgender rights would take effect, although it would not be a nationally binding precedent.
The Texas lawsuit, filed by Mr. Paxton on behalf of officials in 13 states, argued that the Obama administration had overstepped its authority in a series of pronouncements in recent years, holding that discrimination against transgender people is a violation of existing laws against sex discrimination, including Title IX in federal education laws and Title VII in federal civil rights laws governing the workplace.
On some level this ruling is not entirely surprising given the fact that, at both the District Court and Circuit Court of Appeals level, the Fifth Circuit is dominated by appointees from the George W. Bush Administration who tend to take a conservative view of the law in general. In the past, for example, we’ve seen District and Circuit Court Judges bar enforcement of the President’s executive action to provide relief to certain classes of immigrants, a decision that was effectively upheld by a divided Supreme Court earlier this year. In this case, Texas and nearly the same group of states involved in the immigration litigation sued the Federal Government over the guidelines issued by the Department of Education which effectively advised every school district in the nation that in order to remain in compliance with civil rights laws, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 they must allow transgender students to use the restroom facilities that comply with the gender they identify with. From the beginning, this was a controversial ruling in no small part because it’s clear that when Congress passed these laws more than forty years ago it was fairly clear that they didn’t even consider the issue of whether or not the bars on discrimination based on sex or gender even applied to someone who identified as transgender. Additionally, the states contended in their complaint that the Administration had violated the provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act, a law meant to govern the promulgation and issuance of new regulations by Executive Departments. Among the requirements of the APA is a notice and comment period during which the agency must allow members of the public to review and file comments on the proposed regulations before they go into effect.
In its ruling the Court found that, just as it had in the case of the deportation relief program, the Administration failed to comply with the relevant provisions of the APA due primarily to the lack of any meaningful notice and comment period. In doing so, the Court rejected the Administration’s argument that the guidelines were not formal rules, and therefore were exempt from the notice and comment provisions of the APA. The Court rejected that argument and held that, because the Department of Education had made clear its intention to enforce the guidelines in appropriate cases they did in fact meet the APA’s definition of the kind of rules that are included within the APA’s notice and comment requirements. Judge O’Connor, who was appointed to the bench in 2007 by President George W. Bush, also ruled that the guidelines themselves were based on an interpretation of the relevant laws that doesn’t seem to be supported by analysis. As I noted above, when Title VII and Title IX were adopted, there was absolutely no discussion evident that the law was meant to apply to situations such as this, or that the laws barring discrimination based on sex/gender in education were meant to apply to anything other than biological gender. In that case, the only way that the law can be expanded is for Congress to act to include transgender persons among the persons intended to be covered by the protections for discrimination based on gender.
This ruling comes at the same time as other cases involving the rights of transgender students are making their way through the Federal Courts. Earlier this year, the Department of Justice and North Carolina filed competing lawsuits related to a law passed by the North Carolina legislature that purports to ban allowing transgender students access to the bathroom of the gender they identify with in public schools, among other provisions that the Justice Department claims discriminate against LGBT citizens. Additionally, a case involving a student in Virginia is awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court as to whether or not it will accept an appeal of a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals case that ruled against the school board and ordered that the student be granted access to the bathroom of their identity. Hopefully, if the Court does accept that appeal it will have a full compliment of Justices to hear the case. In any case, this appears to be the new LGBT rights battleground, so expect to hear much more on this issue in the future.
Here’s the opinion: