LGBTQ Legal Concerns Following the 2016 Election

images-1We have been receiving a lot of questions from our clients and community members wondering what the recent election of Trump means to their legal rights.  The answers are complex and not entirely known at this point.  However, here is some of the information we can give you at this point:

Marriage

Trump has said that he would “strongly consider” appointing justices to overrule the decision on same-sex marriage.  Following that statement, Trump named Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate.  Pence has a long history of taking anti-LGBT positions.  Both Trump and Pence have also repeatedly stated that they believe the right to marry should be a state’s rights issue, which is contrary to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell.  But it is important to understand that it would take a complex concurrence of events to challenge the Obergefell decision.

The President does not have the authority to overturn a Supreme Court decision, but he does have the ability to appoint Supreme Court Justices that would have that power.  Right now there is one opening on the Supreme Court, it was vacated by Justice Scalia.  The Obergefell decision was a 5 to 4 decision, with Justice Scalia being one of the 4 dissenting Justices.  This means that if Trump appoints a Justice to fill Scalia’s seat that is opposed to marriage equality, the make-up of the Court would be the same as it was when Obergefell was decided.  As such, there would not be sufficient votes to overrule the decision.

The difference comes if one of the other Justices were to retire or pass away.  The eldest Justices are Ruth Bader Ginsburg (age 83), Anthony Kennedy (age 80) and Stephen Breyer (age 78), and all three were part of the majority ruling in favor of marriage equality.  As such, if one of them leaves the bench, then Trump will nominate their replacement.  If he does nominate a Justice that is opposed to marriage equality and/or other LGBTQ issues, then the makeup of the Court will change and the majority would be opposed to marriage equality and other LGBTQ rights issues. (We are not going to get into the Supreme Court nominating process in this post, but we want to acknowledge that the nominee must go through an appointment process and the make-up of the Senate and the House at the time could be important to the outcome).

Even if Trump were to fill two seats on the Court, and both replacements were anti-LGBTQ rights, that does not mean that marriage equality will be overturned.  It is rare that the Court overturns a major decision, especially this soon after the ruling, as legal doctrine provides that the Court should respect and follow their own prior rulings.  That, however, does not mean that groups won’t try. Those groups would need a conflict on the issue of same-sex marriage sufficient to compel the Court to revisit the issue.  An example would be a state passing a law that inhibited or barred same-sex marriage in that state, something similar to what Tennessee attempted, to no avail, earlier this year.

What if the Obergefell decision was overruled? Well there is ample legal authority for the fact that a marriage that was valid when entered cannot be invalidated by a subsequent change in the law.  So people that are already married should not be concerned that their marriages will be invalidated.  For individuals that are not already married, but may want to do so in the future, if Obergefell was overruled then the right to marry would likely become a state’s rights issue, meaning it would depend on the state where you lived.  In Colorado we would likely lose the right to marry, in light of our Constitution, and would fall back to civil unions. Keep in mind, this is really an unlikely outcome and definitely not one that will happen in the immediate future.

The wrinkle that is FADA (the First Amendment Defense Act).  FADA was a federal bill introduced in 2015.  FADA is relevant to this discussion because in September of 2016 Trump vowed to sign FADA if passed by Congress (it has not passed Congress up to this point).  FADA essentially aims to prevent the federal government from enforcing marriage equality by preventing the federal government from taking punitive action against individuals, corporations, or organizations that discriminate against same-sex married couples.  FADA would effectively legalize discrimination against same-sex married couples. We are not going to get into all of the details of FADA here, but you can read more about it here.  For this discussion, understand it would not prevent or eliminate the right to marry, but it would give people and businesses the right to discriminate against same-sex married couples.

Children

Adoption laws, and other laws related to families, are state laws and not federal laws.  In the State of Colorado there are various ways to establish parental rights to children, to include adoption by both parties, second-parent adoption, step-parent adoption, and obtaining an Order under the Colorado Uniform Parentage Act.  If you have obtained parental rights over your child(ren) using any of these methods, neither the President or the Federal government can take your rights away.  Each of the above methods results in a Court decree or order, which is intended to be permanent and pursuant to Supreme Court case law must be recognized by Courts in all 50 states.

In the State of Colorado, our law also provides that if a child is born during a marriage (or conceived during a civil union) the child is presumed to be the child of both parties to that marriage/civil union.  As this is a state law, federal law cannot change it.  However, this law only creates a presumption.  So, if you are the non-birth or non-donor parent, and you are relying on this law for your parental rights, you should understand that not all states may recognize your parental rights.  So, if something were to happen while you are visiting another state, or if you should move to another state and then divorce or experience the death of the other parent, that presumption may not be recognized.  To eliminate this risk, it is important to consider obtaining a court order.  In this instance, we use Colorado’s Uniform Parentage Act to help our clients obtain an Order determining the parent-child relationship, which is a relatively simple process, but results in an Order that ensures your rights to your child.

Bottom line, if you have a Court order/decree there is no risk to your parental rights.  If you do not, then you should consider options for obtaining an order/decree.

Discrimination Laws

We can anticipate seeing more states and local communities considering bills to allow individuals, business, and organizations, to discriminate against people based upon “sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions,” as well as bills to impact bathroom use by transgender individuals.  These laws have yet to go before the Supreme Court, so the make-up of the Court will be critical to the outcome.  If upheld these laws would allow hotels, bakers, photographers, etc. to discriminate against same-sex couples seeking to get married or just use their services, and/or would require people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their biological sex.  These laws will need to be closely watched, as they were hot button issues last year for the anti-LGBTQ groups and will likely be even bigger issues this year in light of the new administration.

Right now, the law in Colorado is that people and businesses cannot discriminate against you based upon your sexual orientation or gender identity.  As such, businesses are not allowed to refuse to provide services to a same-sex couple seeking to get married, or refuse to serve anyone that is LGBTQ.  The law in Colorado also provides that individuals can use the bathroom which is consistent with their gender identity.  As such, any changes to these laws would have to come through the Colorado legislature or by way of a Court ruling that the laws are unconstitutional or violate constitutional rights of certain people.  An example of how a Court ruling could arise would be the Colorado case related to the baker that refused to bake a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding.  That case is currently pending and the baker is asking the Supreme Court to review it to determine if the law infringes on the baker’s rights, as he does not want to bake cakes for same-sex marriages and claims forcing him to do so violates his religious freedoms.

Executive Orders and Policies at Risk

Trump has stated that he intends to void President Obama’s Executive Orders shortly after being sworn into office.  Whether this will occur, to what extent, and when, is still to be seen, but it is a risk worth understanding.  The executive actions at risk include rules that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination by federal contractors, discrimination in healthcare and insurance, discrimination in HUD-funded programs and housing, bathroom usage in public schools under Title IX, as well as prison rape elimination regulations, and guidance on immigration visa petitions.

Additionally, transgender individuals are currently able to change their gender markers on their passport and social security cards without being required to document sex reassignment surgery.  This was the result of policies from the State Department and the Social Security Administration.  These policies may also be at risk under a new administration.  I would note that if Trump were to void all of President Obama’s Executive Orders that would not eliminate these policies, instead what would have to occur are policy changes within both agencies.  That said, if you are considering changing your gender markers, you might want to get that taken care of sooner rather than later, or at least keep an eye on Trump’s appointments to these agencies. The name change process is a different matter, as that process is a matter of state law.  As such, the President and/or the Federal government cannot change this process.  Furthermore, the process results in a Decree of Name Change, which must be recognized and honored by all Federal agencies.

Supreme Court Possibilities

On January 16, 2015, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear the appeal of four cases regarding marriage equality from the Sixth Circuit. In November, the Sixth Circuit became the first appellate court to uphold same-sex marriage bans, thereby creating a split within the appellate courts and making it more likely for the court to ultimately agree to hear an appeal on the issue of marriage equality.

The questions presented to the high court by the Sixth Circuit cases are as follows: (1) “Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same-sex?” and 2) “Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same-sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?” Thus, essentially the court will answer the questions of whether same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional and separately, whether a state that bans same-sex marriages can lawfully refuse to recognize such a marriage from another state.

The court will hold oral arguments on these cases in late April. Oral arguments will last 90 minutes for the first question noted above and 60 minutes for the second. The court is expected to issue a decision in late June.

We have received many questions from people inquiring about the consequences of the Supreme Court’s possible rulings.  There is no way to predict how the Court will rule but I have set forth the consequences of some potential rulings below.

1. The Supreme Court rules the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

If the Court issues this ruling, then we will essentially have marriage equality.  Undoubtedly, there will still be some states that resist but it will likely be a futile effort on their part. Additionally, it will be yet another layer of case law ruling that denying rights to LGBT citizens is unconstitutional. Such a ruling may not have a direct impact on discrimination faced in other areas of law and life.  However, depending on how the Court tailors its ruling, it is certainly helpful authority moving forward as we battle discrimination in employment and public accommodations.

2. The Supreme Court rules that the Fourteenth Amendment does not require states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, i.e., same-sex marriage bans are constitutional.

The consequences to this ruling are a little more complex.  In those states where marriage equality came through a vote of the people or a court ruling based on a state’s constitution, i.e. New Jersey and New Mexico, the Court’s ruling in this regard would have no impact and marriage equality would remain.

With regard to those states where marriage equality came through a federal or state court ruling based on the federal constitution (via the Windsor decision), those states would continue to have marriage equality until someone with standing moves to re-open the previous lawsuit and asks the court for a ruling based on the Supreme Court’s decision. It is possible that no-one in some of those states will take such action and therefore, marriage equality will remain. As many recall, in California, following the Supreme Court’s decision that the parties appealing the lower court ruling striking down Proposition 8 did not have standing, no-one with standing, such as a state official, chose to continue the appeals and marriage equality continues in California.

In Colorado, the most obvious person with standing to reopen the previous litigation is the state Attorney General. In November 2014, Colorado elected Republican Cynthia Coffman. Previously, Ms. Coffman’s public statements indicated that as Attorney General, she is required to enforce the law of Colorado and therefore, would enforce the marriage ban. Whether that will remain her stance should these circumstances come to pass remains to be seen.  If this occurs, the earliest the question of marriage equality can be on the state ballot is November 2016.

Marriages that occurred in the affected states in between the lower federal court rulings and any action to reopen and reverse the previous decisions would in all likelihood remain valid.

3.  The Supreme Court rules that the Fourteenth Amendment does not require states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples but also rules that states are required to recognize same-sex marriages lawfully entered into in other states.

If the Supreme Court issues this ‘split’ decision, then everything set forth in section two above will apply. Additionally, however, each state will be required to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states where same-sex marriages are permitted.  Further, the non-permitting states will have to recognize said unions as actual marriages and not some other legal relationship, such as a civil union.  Thus, Colorado same-sex couples could travel to New Mexico, Idaho, New York, etc. and get married and upon their return, this state would have to recognize their union as a marriage.

Updated: Marriage Equality Arrives in Colorado

coloradoStateSeal-300x300The Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari on marriage equality appeals from several federal appellate courts, including the Tenth Circuit. Those cases involved decisions from Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, Indiana and Wisconsin.  Thus, in those states, the previous rulings striking down their marriage bans as unconstitutional are now considered final. Conceivably, this also means that each state under the purview of those federal appellate courts will have marriage equality soon.

So, what does this mean for Colorado, one of the states within the jurisdiction of the Tenth Circuit?  There was a lot of speculation this morning on how Colorado’s Attorney General, John Suthers, who relentlessly fought to preserve Colorado’s same-sex marriage ban, would react.  However, with the following statement, his office has announced it would not fight this further:

We have consistently maintained that we will abide by the Supreme Court’s determinationon the constitutionality of marriage laws. By choosing not to take up the matter, the courthas left the 10th Circuit ruling in place. We expect the 10th Circuit will issue a final ordergoverning Colorado very shortly. Once the formalities are resolved, clerks across the statemust begin issuing marriage licenses to all same-sex couples.We will file motions to expedite the lifting of the stays in the federal and state courts andwill advise the clerks when to issue licenses.  The parties will be filing the appropriate documents with the courts and Colorado will have marriage equality.

Colorado will have marriage equality very soon.

There is currently ongoing litigation in other federal appellate courts on this matter. The Sixth and Ninth Circuits have already heard oral arguments regarding challenges to same-sex marriage bans in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee (Sixth Circuit) and Idaho and Nevada (Ninth Circuit).  The Ninth Circuit is expected to rule that such bans are unconstitutional.  However, many expect that the Sixth Circuit may be the first circuit court to uphold same-sex marriage bans. If that occurs, it would create a split between the circuit courts and increase the likelihood that the Supreme Court may grant certiorari on an appeal from that decision.  Additionally, there is also an appeal regarding same-sex marriage bans in the Fifth Circuit. However, oral arguments will not be heard in that appeal until later this year.