The Problem With the Texas Federal Court’s Nationwide Order Regarding Bathroom Access for Transgender Students

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Posted in: Civil Rights

Late last month, a federal trial court in Texas issued a nationwide order preventing the federal Department of Education (DOE), as well as a number of other federal agencies, from enforcing—anywhere in the country—their “interpretation of the definition of ‘sex’ in the various written directives … as applied to Title IX … and Title VII” (which are federal laws that prohibit certain entities from discriminating on the basis of sex). The basic underlying legal issue in the case (titled Texas v. United States) is whether school districts must permit transgender students to use restrooms and other facilities consistent with their gender identity, rather than the sex assigned to them at birth. According to the federal district judge, the DOE’s position that Title IX requires schools to do just that is inconsistent with the DOE’s own regulations and federal procedural requirements, and, accordingly, is unenforceable.

There are many things that could be said about the substance of the court’s opinion. (The U.S. Court of Appeals for Fourth Circuit in the mid-Atlantic region, for example, previously reached a contrary conclusion about whether the DOE’s interpretation of its own regulations was entitled to judicial deference in G.G. v. Glouster County School Board, finding the DOE’s interpretation was permissible). But in the space below we focus more narrowly on the question of the appropriateness of a nationwide injunction.

To better frame that remedial question, we should provide a bit more background on the lawsuit itself. As noted above, the ultimate question folks care most about is whether school districts must, under federal antidiscrimination law, permit transgender students to use the restroom consistent with their gender identity. There are a number of cases pending in courts around the country that raise some form of this underlying question (including the Fourth Circuit ruling that answered that question in the affirmative, and other cases in other regions of the nation.)

The Texas case purports to get at this question of the meaning of antidiscrimination law by posing a more technical query: whether various documents issued by various federal agencies—which state that, in the view of the federal government, federal statutes and regulations are best read as meaning that school districts have an obligation to allow transgender students to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity—are entitled to deference and provide legitimate, rather than unlawful, guidance to school districts. The group of plaintiffs in the Texas case consists of various states and state agencies drawn from a dozen or so of the fifty states. These plaintiffs sued as defendants a variety of federal officials and federal agencies, asserting, again, that different documents issued by these federal officials and agencies are unlawful.

To be clear, however, even if the agencies’ various interpretative documents are not entitled to deference (or indeed, turn out to be “unlawful”), public schools still must comply with the relevant statutes, including Title VII and Title IX, which prohibit sex discrimination in employment and schools, respectively. Even if DOE’s documents asserting its view that refusal to permit transgender individuals bathroom choice constitutes sex discrimination under federal law are legally flawed, that does not mean that its view of the meaning of sex discrimination law is wrong. Indeed, separate and apart from the agency interpretations, a number of courts have held that Title VII and Title IX prohibit discrimination against transgender people, using reasoning that might support entitlement of transgender persons to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity.

With that background, let us home in on the scope-of-the-remedy issue. The Texas district court judge issued a nationwide injunction preventing the various federal defendants from “enforcing the [multiple documents] against” not only the plaintiffs, but also against “other public, educationally-based institutions.” In other words, the court issued an order that offered protection not just to the plaintiffs before it, but to all school districts in the country, including those located in areas where other federal courts might have different views on the permissibility of the DOE’s interpretive guidance.

Whatever one thinks of the district court’s analysis of the legality of DOE’s documents, the court’s sweeping, countrywide, order is very legally dubious. To be sure, when the court has jurisdiction (or power to speak the law) over a defendant (including U.S. government agencies), the court has authority to order the defendant to act or not act. This includes the authority to issue a directive that has effects “outside the territorial jurisdiction of the court,” but only because sometimes a plaintiff operates in more than one federal judicial district, and a court should be able to give a plaintiff full relief from a defendant’s wrongful actions, not just local relief.

But one problem with the district court’s order is that, by preventing the DOE and other federal agencies from enforcing their guidance documents anywhere, the court has effectively provided relief to dozens of states and hundreds (if not thousands) of school districts who were not plaintiffs in this case. It is one thing to give a plaintiff who sues full relief; it is another for the relief to extend beyond the parties in the case at hand.

What is so wrong about protecting other states and school districts that did not sue? At first blush, it may seem that if the federal government is acting wrongly, a court should tell it to stop acting wrongly against everyone in America, not just the parties who sued. But this instinct fails to account for the fact that not everyone agrees the federal government is acting wrongly, and one district judge should not, absent a class action where all the states are represented and the federal government is on clear notice—when it chooses how aggressively to contest a case—about precisely how broad the remedy would be, try to decide the issue for the whole country; that is not the function or strength of district courts. Indeed, resolving matters once and for all for the whole nation is a power we invest principally in the Supreme Court.

It is for that reason that courts often say something to the effect that “injunctive relief should be no more burdensome to the defendant than necessary to provide complete relief to the plaintiffs.” Related to this is the admonition that when exercising its equitable powers to issue an injunction, a court must be “mindful of any effect its decision might have outside its jurisdiction [insofar as c]ourts ordinarily should not award injunctive relief that would cause substantial interference with another court’s sovereignty.” A contrary policy would, in the words of the Supreme Court, “substantially thwart the development of important questions of law by freezing the first final decision rendered on a particular legal issue.” And if and when the issue makes its way to the Supreme Court, overly broad district court (or circuit court) injunctions that prevent other courts from hearing cases and weighing in can “deprive the Supreme Court of the benefit of decisions from several courts of appeals,” a diversity of viewpoint the Court uses to decide the best nationwide outcomes. (This process is sometimes referred to as lower court “percolation.”) And the fact that the district court said it would entertain a request to narrowly limit its nationwide injunction to avoid “unnecessary interfere[nce]” with other “currently pending” cases does not eliminate this concern.

The Texas district court’s injunction itself illustrates the pitfalls of overly broad injunctions. To give but one example, several months ago, the Fourth Circuit (as alluded to above) was presented with essentially the same arguments that were presented to the Texas court in this case. That case—G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board—was brought by a student, G.G., against his local school board. G.G. was assigned the female sex at birth, but identifies as male. G.G. has been known as a male since ninth grade. He has changed the sex designation on his driver’s license and has legally changed his name to a conventionally masculine name. At the beginning of his sophomore year, G.G. informed school officials that G.G. would be attending school as a male student. Initially, G.G. agreed to use a separate restroom in the nurse’s office. But it quickly became clear that this was not an acceptable solution. In October of that year, the principal agreed that G.G. could use the boys’ bathrooms. For the next several weeks, G.G. used boys’ restrooms “without incident.” But after some parents learned about the situation and demanded that the school board prevent G.G. from using the boys’ bathrooms, the school board adopted a policy “prohibiting transgender students from using the same restrooms as other students.”

G.G filed suit in federal court, alleging that the policy violated Title IX, a federal statute that prohibits sex discrimination in federally supported schools, as well as the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Like the trial court in the Texas case, the district court in G.G.’s case concluded that the agency’s interpretation of its own regulation regarding bathrooms was not entitled to deference and was wrong as to its bottom line. The Fourth Circuit reversed.

Specifically, the Fourth Circuit held that the “Department[ of Education]’s interpretation of its own regulation, § 106.33, as it relates to restroom access by transgender individuals, is entitled to [administrative] deference and accorded controlling weight in this case.” This decision is now the controlling law across the Fourth Circuit. Although the Fourth Circuit is the only appellate court that has addressed this specific question to date, cases on this issue are pending in courts around the country.

Particularly (though not only) when another court has already issued a contrary pronouncement on the same question, issuing a nationwide injunction causes substantial interference with the power of other courts, and with the process of helping frame issues that might ultimately be taken up by the Supreme Court.

A related problem is that nationwide injunctions under such circumstances also encourage what lawyers call “forum shopping”—that is, picking a particular place to sue not because of the convenience of the parties or the location of the witnesses or evidence (which are legitimate factors for choosing a particular venue), but because of a predicted outcome. And, that indeed seems to be what is going on in this case. Most of the fifteen plaintiffs in the Texas case are states or government agencies located in states outside of Texas. And, even more importantly, most of the plaintiffs are located in jurisdictions where there is existing law contrary to their position. As one of the amicus briefs filed in the case puts it: “Plaintiffs Alabama, Arizona Department of Education, Georgia, Huber-Overgaard Unified School District, Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia would lose this lawsuit if they filed it in their home states or anywhere in the federal circuits whose law governs them.” Indeed one of the plaintiffs—West Virginia—is in the Fourth Circuit, which, as noted above, has already issued a contrary order on the precise question presented to the Texas district court. And West Virginia made the very same arguments to the Texas court that it unsuccessfully made to as an amicus in the Fourth Circuit. Giving plaintiffs an incentive and opportunity to have multiple bites at the apple like this would not promote efficiency or fairness.

In its 38-page opinion, the Texas federal court discusses the propriety of nationwide relief in just a sentence or two, and cites only one case—a Supreme Court case in which nationwide relief was upheld, but where there was a class action that had been certified in which the plaintiff class was itself nationwide, and where the lower courts had been careful not to allow their injunctions to affect other pending or likely litigations. In short, the district court gave no reasons or analysis to justify its presumptively overbroad relief.

For the record, we should note that one of us, Dean Amar, has in other commentary (including here and here) questioned an overly broad injunction that obtained a liberal result (as contrasted with the conservative result reached by the Texas district court case). In the prior instance, a few same-sex couples sued California officials to obtain marriage licenses even though state law, California Proposition 8, limited marriage in California to a union between a man and a woman. The district court judge, Vaughn Walker, issued what on its face appeared to be a statewide ban on California officials applying Proposition 8 to any same-sex couples, not just the plaintiffs before him. Dean Amar argued (relying on the legal principles discussed above) that, absent class action certification (which might have been plausible but which wasn’t sought), the district court’s remedy should have been limited to the plaintiffs in the case.

We mention this because procedural rules, by definition, are supposed to be trans-substantive, and when they seem result-oriented (as they did here in Texas given the absence of analysis and care offered by the district court), cynicism about the judicial system is the result.