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Category: US Supreme Court: Roe v Wade

200615 – Judgement: Bostock v Clayton County, Georgia re discrimination in the workplace based on sexuality

Justice Gorsuch delivered the 6-3 majority judgment (Roberts CJ, and Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan JJ joining, Alito J, Thomas J, Kavanaugh J dissenting) in Bostock v Clayton County, extending the protection of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to gay and transgender discrimination. His Honour opened:

“Sometimes small gestures can have unexpected consequences. Major initiatives practically guarantee them. In our time, few pieces of federal legislation rank in significance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. There, in Title VII, Congress outlawed discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear. An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids. Those who adopted the Civil Rights Act might not have anticipated their work would lead to this particular result. Likely, they weren’t thinking about many of the Act’s consequences that have become apparent over the years, including its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of motherhood or its ban on the sexual harassment of male employees. But the limits of the drafters’ imagination supply no reason to ignore the law’s demands. When the express terms of a statute give us one 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.”

Well played, sir. Interestingly (and confirming previous impressions), Chief Justice Roberts was part of the majority.

Gerald Bostock was an award winning child welfare advocate for Clayton County, Georgia, for a decade, then, after playing in a gay recreational softball league, was fired for “conduct unbecoming” a county employee. Donald Zarda was a New York skydiving instructor for several years. Mr Zarda mentioned he was gay, then was fired days later. Aimee Stephens worked at a funeral parlour in Michigan for six years, starting her job while male, then two years in, began treatment for despair and loneliness, ultimately, consistent with her medical advice, deciding to live and work full-time as a woman. When Ms Stephens advised her employer, they fired her, telling her, “this is not going to work out”.

Each of the three employees brought an action against their employer under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Title VII claiming unlawful discrimination. (Mr Zarda and Ms Stephens have since died, the actions were continued by their respective estates.) The respective Federal Courts of Appeal differed in their interpretation of Title VII, the Second Circuit and Sixth Circuit holding that Title VII did bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the Eleventh Circuit holding the reverse. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the disagreement between the courts of appeal.

Gorsuch J addressed the key interpretation issue:

“This Court normally interprets a statute in accord with the ordinary public meaning of its terms at the time of its enactment. After all, only the words on the page constitute the law adopted by Congress and approved by the President. If judges could add to, remodel, update, or detract from old statutory terms inspired only by extratextual sources and our own imaginations, we would risk amending statutes outside the legislative process reserved for the people’s representatives. And we would deny the people the right to continue relying on the original meaning of the law they have counted on to settle their rights and obligations ….

With this in mind, our task is clear. We must determine the ordinary public meaning of Title VII’s command that it is unlawful . . . for an employer to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” §2000e–2(a)(1). ….”

The majority concluded, in summary:

  1. Title VII was to be interpreted on its ordinary public meaning of its terms at the time of its enactment.
  2. It is not relevant whether the employer intended to discriminate.
  3. The prohibition applies, even if there are other, additional, factors.
  4. It is not relevant whether the employer applied its practice to men and women alike.
  5. The employer’s statutory text arguments, that Title VII did not apply to discrimination against homosexual or transgender status, fail on the basis of the Supreme Court precedents.
  6. That few in 1964 might have expected Title VII to apply to discrimination against homosexuals and transgender has no bearing here, where no ambiguity exists about how Title VII’s terms apply to the facts. The Court has long rejected the reasoning that when a new application is both unexpected and important, the Court should merely point out the question, refer the subject back to Congress, and decline to enforce the law’s plain terms.
  7. The employer’s reference to policy, suggesting that the Court proceed without the law’s guidance to do what it thinks best, should not be taken up.

Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas, delivered a dissenting opinion. His Honour opened:

“There is only one word for what the Court has done today: legislation. The document that the Court releases is in the form of a judicial opinion interpreting a statute, but that is deceptive.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on any of five specified grounds: “race, color, religion, sex, [and] national origin.” 42 U. S. C. §2000e–2(a)(1). Neither “sexual orientation” nor “gender identity” appears on that list. For the past 45 years, bills have been introduced in Congress to add “sexual orientation” to the list,1 and in recent years, bills have included “gender identity” as well.2 But to date, none has passed both Houses.

Last year, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would amend Title VII by defining sex discrimination to include both “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” H. R. 5, 116th Cong., 1st Sess. (2019), but the bill has stalled in the Senate. An alternative bill, H. R. 5331, 116th Cong., 1st Sess. (2019), would add similar prohibitions but contains provisions to protect religious liberty.3 This bill remains before a House Subcommittee. Because no such amendment of Title VII has been enacted in accordance with the requirements in the Constitution (passage in both Houses and presentment to the President, Art. I, §7, cl. 2), Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination because of “sex” still means what it has always meant. But the Court is not deterred by these constitutional niceties. Usurping the constitutional authority of the other branches, the Court has essentially taken H. R. 5’s provision on employment discrimination and issued it under the guise of statutory interpretation. A more brazen abuse of our authority to interpret statutes is hard to recall. The Court tries to convince readers that it is merely enforcing the terms of the statute, but that is preposterous. Even as understood today, the concept of discrimination because of “sex” is different from discrimination because of “sexual orientation” or “gender identity.” And in any event, our duty is to interpret statutory terms to “mean what they conveyed to reasonable people at the time they were written.” A. Scalia & B. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 16 (2012) (emphasis added). If every single living American had been surveyed in 1964, it would have been hard to find any who thought that discrimination because of sex meant discrimination because of sexual orientation––not to mention gender identity, a concept that was essentially unknown at the time.

The Court attempts to pass off its decision as the inevitable product of the textualist school of statutory interpretation championed by our late colleague Justice Scalia, but no one should be fooled. The Court’s opinion is like a pirate ship. It sails under a textualist flag, but what it actually represents is a theory of statutory interpretation that Justice Scalia excoriated––the theory that courts should “update” old statutes so that they better reflect the current values of society. See A. Scalia, A Matter of Interpretation 22 (1997). If the Court finds it appropriate to adopt this theory, it should own up to what it is doing. Many will applaud today’s decision because they agree on policy grounds with the Court’s updating of Title VII. But the question in these cases is not whether discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity should be outlawed. The question is whether Congress did that in 1964. It indisputably did not.”

Kavanaugh J also delivered a dissenting opinion. His Honour opened:

“Like many cases in this Court, this case boils down to one fundamental question: Who decides? Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination “because of ” an individual’s “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” The question here is whether Title VII should be expanded to prohibit employment discrimination because of sexual orientation. Under the Constitution’s separation of powers, the responsibility to amend Title VII belongs to Congress and the President in the legislative process, not to this Court. The political branches are well aware of this issue. In 2007, the U. S. House of Representatives voted 235 to 184 to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2013, the U. S. Senate voted 64 to 32 in favor of a similar ban. In 2019, the House again voted 236 to 173 to outlaw employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Although both the House and Senate have voted at different times to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination, the two Houses have not yet come together with the President to enact a bill into law. The policy arguments for amending Title VII are very weighty. The Court has previously stated, and I fully agree, that gay and lesbian Americans “cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth.” Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Comm’n, 584 U. S. ___, ___ (2018) (slip op., at 9). But we are judges, not Members of Congress. And in Alexander Hamilton’s words, federal judges exercise “neither Force nor Will, but merely judgment.” The Federalist No. 78, p. 523 (J. Cooke ed. 1961). Under the Constitution’s separation of powers, our role as judges is to interpret and follow the law as written, regardless of whether we like the result. Cf. Texas v. Johnson, 491 U. S. 397, 420–421 (1989) (Kennedy, J., concurring). Our role is not to make or amend the law. As written, Title VII does not prohibit employment discrimination because of sexual orientation…..

For several decades, Congress has considered numerous bills to prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. But as noted above, although Congress has come close, it has not yet shouldered a bill over the legislative finish line. In the face of the unsuccessful legislative efforts (so far) to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination, judges may not rewrite the law simply because of their own policy views. Judges may not update the law merely because they think that Congress does not have the votes or the fortitude. Judges may not predictively amend the law just because they believe that Congress is likely to do it soon anyway. If judges could rewrite laws based on their own policy views, or based on their own assessments of likely future legislative action, the critical distinction between legislative authority and judicial authority that undergirds the Constitution’s separation of powers would collapse, thereby threatening the impartial rule of law and individual liberty. As James Madison stated: “Were the power of judging joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary controul, for the judge would then be the legislator.” The Federalist No. 47, at 326 (citing Montesquieu). If judges could, for example, rewrite or update securities laws or healthcare laws or gun laws or environmental laws simply based on their own policy views, the Judiciary would become a democratically illegitimate super-legislature—unelected, and hijacking the important policy decisions reserved by the Constitution to the people’s elected representatives. Because judges interpret the law as written, not as they might wish it were written, the first 10 U. S. Courts of Appeals to consider whether Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination all said no. Some 30 federal judges  considered the question. All 30 judges said no, based on the text of the statute. 30 out of 30. But in the last few years, a new theory has emerged. To end-run the bedrock separation-of-powers principle that courts may not unilaterally rewrite statutes, the plaintiffs here (and, recently, two Courts of Appeals) have advanced a novel and creative argument. They contend that discrimination “because of sexual orientation” and discrimination “because of sex” are actually not separate categories of discrimination after all. Instead, the theory goes, discrimination because of sexual orientation always qualifies as discrimination because of sex: When a gay man is fired because he is gay, he is fired because he is attracted to men, even though a similarly situated woman would not be fired just because she is attracted to men. According to this theory, it follows that the man has been fired, at least as a literal matter, because of his sex. Under this literalist approach, sexual orientation discrimination automatically qualifies as sex discrimination, and Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination therefore also prohibits sexual orientation discrimination—and actually has done so since 1964, unbeknownst to everyone. Surprisingly, the Court today buys into this approach.” Ante, at 9–12.

The majority and dissenting opinions each cite the same (Scalia) principles, ie that the Court is to interpret statutory terms to “mean what they conveyed to reasonable people at the time they were written.” The substantive argument is as to the proper interpretation of the words: “race, color, religion, sex, [and] national origin.”

As always, the judgments are a ripping read.