October 13, 2018 at 12:17 pm EDT | by Jon Davidson
The unclear future of LGBTQ rights at the Supreme Court
marriage equality, Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade

(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Supreme Court’s new term began Oct. 1. The justices have not yet accepted any cases squarely addressing LGBTQ rights questions; however, numerous appeals raising key issues for our community are waiting in the wings. As Brett Kavanaugh settles into his new position on the Court after a fractious confirmation process, many in the LGBTQ community are wondering which, if any, pending cases the Court will choose to hear and, if it does take on any such cases, how it will rule.

There’s no question that there’s a lot at stake.

There are four petitions now pending before the Court asking it to decide whether federal sex discrimination laws encompass discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. If the Court agrees to hear any of these, its ruling could determine whether LGBTQ people are protected under current federal laws prohibiting discrimination in employment, education, housing and credit.

Two cases challenging President Trump’s attempt to bar transgender people from the military are at the federal courts of appeals, one step from the Supreme Court. One of them—Lambda Legal’s and OutServe-SLDN’s Karnoski v. Trump case—is being argued to the Ninth Circuit on Oct. 10.

Several cases already on appeal could again put before the Court as to whether there are circumstances in which businesses have a constitutional right to discriminate. In one, a Hawaii bed & breakfast owner is expected to soon petition the Court to review a decision that rejected her claim of a right to refuse a lesbian couple lodging.   

Three suits questioning whether schools can bar transgender students from restrooms that match their gender identity also are now on appeal. So, too, is a case asking whether the city of Philadelphia acted properly in terminating its contracts with two religiously affiliated foster care agencies that refused to abide by the city’s sexual orientation nondiscrimination policies.

Accordingly, it could be a big year for LGBTQ Americans in the highest court of the land—but it might not be. The Supreme Court doesn’t have to consider any of these cases. Out of approximately 7,000 requests that the Court review lower court decisions each year, the Court agrees to hear about only 80, or slightly more than one percent of them.

Brett Kavanaugh’s recent confirmation brings even more uncertainty to the Supreme Court this year. Lacking a record of LGBTQ rulings, we still do not know for sure how Kavanaugh will rule on sexual orientation or gender identity questions. He has a record of ruling conservatively on many issues. Nonetheless, during his confirmation hearing, he repeatedly quoted from an opinion authored by his mentor, Justice Anthony Kennedy, that, “The days of discriminating against gay and lesbian Americans or treating gay and lesbian Americans as inferior in dignity and worth are over.”

Even if the new Justice Kavanaugh does end up siding with members of the Court who have dissented from the Court’s prior landmark victories for LGBTQ rights in any cases the Court agrees to hear, it may be possible to swing Chief Justice Roberts to join with the four justices who have ruled in favor of LGBTQ people in the past. Roberts previously voted with those justices in decisions rejecting a challenge to the Affordable Care Act, allowing cities to sue banks that targeted people of color for high-risk loans, and restricting the police’s ability to obtain suspects’ cellphone location data without a warrant. And notwithstanding Roberts’ criticism of the Court’s marriage equality decision, he subsequently voted to summarily reverse the Arkansas courts’ judgment that the state did not have to list both same-sex spouses’ names on their children’s birth certificates.

The Chief Justice’s votes sometimes reflect institutionalist concerns with preserving the Court’s legitimacy and stature. That impulse may cause him to decline to overturn certain prior precedents. It also may lead him to vote against hearing cases that may be especially divisive or to find ways to avoid particularly controversial outcomes that would subject the Court to criticism. That’s especially likely to weigh on his mind because of how partisan Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation turned out to be.

There also are important cases already on the Court’s docket that go beyond LGBTQ concerns. For example, the Court has agreed to hear Gamble v. United States. That appeal asks the Court to overturn its precedent that the Constitution’s bar on double jeopardy—which prohibits prosecuting someone twice for the same offense—does not bar separate prosecutions for violation of state and of federal law based on the same conduct. The issue is important because, if that precedent were reversed, a presidential pardon of those indicted for federal crimes could preclude states from prosecuting them as well.

Time will tell. In the meantime, it’s imperative that we not give up hope and that we not put all our apples in the Supreme Court basket.


Jon Davidson is chief counsel for Freedom for All Americans.

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