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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal appeals court preserves access to abortion drug

The Court also set tighter rules for accessing mifepristone

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A courtroom for the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in the John Minor Wisdom United States Courthouse in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Carol M. Highsmith, photographer, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

A three judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling Wednesday just before midnight in New Orleans that has preserved access to the abortion drug mifepristone.

In a 2-1 vote the panel blocked the lower court ruling by Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas for now, but set tighter rules that would allow the drug only to be dispensed up to seven weeks into pregnancy, not 10, and not by mail.

In his ruling in Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. FDA, Kacsmaryk had issued a stay on the Food and Drug Administration’s conclusion that mifepristone, which is used in combination with a second drug, misoprostol, is safe and effective, a finding the agency reached in 2000 that has since been buttressed by more than two decades of clinical evidence. Kacsmaryk’s ruling had been on pause for a week to allow the U.S. Justice Department to file the appeal with the 5th Circuit Court.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland immediately ordered the Justice Department to appeal and seek a stay (of Kacsmaryk’s stay) pending the outcome of additional litigation. On Monday the Department asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to halt implementation of the ruling.

The Associated Press reported that under the appeals court order, the FDA’s initial approval of mifepristone in 2000 is allowed to remain in effect. But changes made by the FDA since 2016 relaxing the rules for prescribing and dispensing mifepristone would be placed on hold.

Those include extending the period of pregnancy when the drug can be used and also allowing it to be dispensed by mail, without any need to visit a doctor’s office.

The AP also reported that the two 5th Circuit judges who voted to tighten restrictions, Kurt Engelhardt and Andrew Oldham, are both appointees of former President Donald Trump. The third judge, Catharina Haynes, is an appointee of former President George W. Bush.

Haynes said she would have put the lower court ruling on hold entirely temporarily to allow oral arguments in the case.

The decision by the 5th Circuit’s 3 judge panel can still be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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U.S. Federal Courts

4th Circuit rules Montgomery County parents cannot opt children out of LGBTQ-specific lessons

Lawsuit filed in May 2023

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(Bigstock photo)

A federal appeals court on Wednesday ruled a group of Montgomery County parents cannot “opt out” their children from classes in which lessons or books on LGBTQ-related topics are taught.

The parents filed their lawsuit in May 2023.

An American Civil Liberties Union press release notes the lawsuit challenges Montgomery County Public Schools’ policy that “mandates the inclusion of literature with LGBTQ+ characters as part of the ELA (English and Language Arts) curriculum, aiming to promote understanding and acceptance among students.” 

“Although the district originally allowed parents to opt their children out of some ELA lessons, it rescinded the opt-out policy because the number of requests grew too difficult to manage, student absenteeism soared, and it created a stigmatizing environment for students who are LGBTQ or have LGBTQ family members, undermining the purpose of the inclusivity requirement,” said the ACLU.

U.S. District Judge Deborah L. Boardman of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland ruled against the parents. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., upheld the decision.

“We’re talking about books like ‘Pride Puppy,’ which is light-hearted and affirming,” said ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon in a press release. “During a time of intensifying calls to ban books and limit access to information about LGBTQ+ people and identities, this ruling in support of inclusion in education matters.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Melissa DuBose becomes first Black and first LGBTQ judge on federal court in R.I.

Senators also advance Nicole Berner’s nomination

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Judge Melissa R. DuBose (Screen capture: Roger Williams University School of Law/YouTube)

Judge Melissa DuBose was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday for her appointment by President Joe Biden to the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island, where she will be the first Black and the first LGBTQ judge to serve on the bench.

DuBose thanked her partner Amy “for blessing me with over two decades of unwavering love, support, laughter and patience,” and their “two remarkable sons … for gracing me with that special love that is reserved for mothers and sons.” 

The vote was 51-47, with only two Republicans supporting her nomination, Susan Collins of Maine and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

During a confirmation hearing in February, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) grilled DuBose about an article 24 years ago in which she was quoted as saying she had gone through “a Marxist phase.”

Currently serving as associate judge on the Rhode Island District Court in Providence, DuBose’s nomination was enthusiastically supported by her state’s two Democratic U.S. senators., Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse.

“She’s proven to be an exceptional jurist with a stellar record,” said the former on the Senate floor, adding, “She has dedicated her life to public service, and Rhode Island is fortunate that she has once again answered the call.”

Whitehouse said, “This is a person, a lifelong Rhode Islander, who is exceedingly well regarded in our community.”

Nicole Berner’s nomination advances

Another lesbian judge nominated by Biden to serve a lifetime tenure on the federal bench is Nicole Berner, who has long served as general counsel of the Service Employees International Union and was tapped to join the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Senate moved for a cloture vote on her nomination Thursday, meaning a final vote is expected as early as next week. She would be the first LGBTQ judge on the circuit court and the 11th confirmed LGBTQ judge nominated by Biden — tying with the record number who were appointed by former President Barack Obama over two terms in office.

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U.S. Federal Courts

N.Y. AG joins multi-state brief in Colo. anti-trans discrimination case

Letitia James and 18 other attorneys general support plaintiff

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trans health care, gay news, Washington Blade
New York Attorney General Letitia James (Photo public domain)

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday joined a brief by 18 other Democratic state attorneys general urging the Colorado Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling against Masterpiece Cakeshop for anti-trans discrimination.

A customer, Autumn Scardina, sued the business over claims that it refused to provide her a cake upon learning that it was for a celebration of her transition. The case is not the first in which owner Jack Smith has faced claims of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

In 2012, Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to fulfill an order for a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, which led to the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — and a narrow ruling that did not address core legal questions weighing the constitutionality of First Amendment claims vis-a-vis the government’s enforcement of LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws.

“Denying service to someone simply because of who they are is illegal discrimination, plain and simple,” James said in a press release. “Allowing this kind of behavior would undermine our nation’s fundamental values of freedom and equality and set a dangerous precedent.”

She added, “I am proud to stand with my fellow attorneys general against this blatant transphobic discrimination.”

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Scardina, noting that Smith objected to fulfilling her cake order only after learning about her intended use for it “and that Phillips did not believe the cake itself expressed any inherent message.”

The fact pattern in both cases against Masterpiece Cakeshop resembles that of another case that originated in Colorado and was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court last year, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis.

This time, the justices did not sidestep the question of whether the state’s anti-discrimination law can be enforced against a business owner, Lorie Smith, a website designer who claimed religious protections for her refusal to provide services to a same-sex couple for their nuptials.

The court’s conservative supermajority ruled in favor of Smith, which was widely seen as a blow to LGBTQ rights.

Joining James in her brief are the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Hawai’i, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and D.C.

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