Much is at stake in court for issues progressives have fought for, and courts are where Americans go to vindicate their most cherished constitutional rights. Put simply: Courts matter.
Like most issues progressives care about, issues affecting gay and transgender Americans often end up in court. Litigation affecting the LGBT community—from challenges to California’s Proposition 8 to lawsuits over the federal Defense of Marriage Act and others—is wending its way toward the U.S. Supreme Court today. From basic civil rights protections to economic justice, courts are playing a pivotal role in the lives of gay and transgender Americans in courtrooms across the country.
Here is a sample of recent and ongoing court cases that demonstrate how much is at stake for the LGBT community:
Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, repeal
Windsor v. United States
Due to the Defense of Marriage Act, same-sex domestic partners are not exempt from paying a federal estate tax on willed assets. As a result of this case, a federal court ruled DOMA unconstitutional and the Department of Justice recently filed an appeal.
Status: Decided in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York; Request for appeal filed.
Golinski v. Office of Personnel Management
A lawsuit that was filed after the Office of Personnel Management of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied extension of health benefits to the wife of a lesbian employee. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is reviewing the case, but the Supreme Court may consider it along with two similar cases in which a federal court has struck down DOMA as unconstitutional.
Status: Decided in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California; Pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit; Request by Department of Justice for review in the Supreme Court of the U.S.
Domestic partner benefits
Bassett et al. v. Snyder
Suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in response to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s signing of H.B. 4770—a state bill that eliminated health care coverage for domestic partners of public employees.
Status: Pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Southern Division.
Glossip v. Missouri Department of Transportation and Highway Patrol Employees’ Retirement System
Kelly Glossip’s domestic partner, State Trooper Dennis Engelhard, was killed tragically in the line of duty on Christmas day. In Missouri surviving spousal benefits are not extended to domestic partners, and same-sex couples are prohibited from marrying. Glossip filed a lawsuit challenging the policy.
Status: Pending in the Circuit Court of Cole County, State of Missouri.
State marriage laws
Perry v. Brown
This case challenged California’s Proposition 8—a state proposition that limited marriage only to opposite-sex couples—and won in the federal court. The court declared Proposition 8 unconstitutional—a holding that was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals—and the case may undergo appeal by the Supreme Court.
Status: Decided in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California; Decided in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit; En banc hearing denied; appeal to Supreme Court possible after 90 day stay starting June 5, 2012.
Sevcik v. Sandoval
Lawsuit filed by Lambda Legal in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada arguing that Nevada’s ban on marriage equality violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Status: Pending in the U.S. District Court, District of Nevada.
Collins v. United States
Despite the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the Department of Defense still grants only half the separation pay to service members discharged for being gay. The case claims this policy is discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Status: Pending in U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) vs. DynCorp International LLC
Despite the lack of a federal law prohibiting employment discrimination based on an individual’s sexual orientation, this case highlights that employees working in antigay environments may sometimes successfully seek recourse by claiming discrimination on the basis of sex or gender stereotyping.
Status: Request for trial by jury filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division; Settlement reached.
Schroer v. Library of Congress
The Library of Congress revoked Diane J. Schroer’s employment offer after she disclosed that she was undergoing gender transition. A federal district judge ruled that discrimination on the basis of changing genders is considered sex discrimination—which is unconstitutional under federal law.
Status: Decided in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia; No appeal filed, case closed.
K.L. v. State of Alaska
The state superior court struck down an Alaska State Department of Motor Vehicles policy prohibiting an individual to change his or her sex on their driver’s license without proof of sexual reassignment surgery.
Status: Decided in the Superior Court for the State of Alaska for the Third Judicial District at Anchorage. Request for appeal filed.
Macy v. Holder Complaint
The Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosions denied employment to Mia Macy when it became clear she was transgender. Her claim was brought before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, which decided that discrimination based on gender identity is unconstitutional under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In addition to its role in enforcing nondiscrimination in employment, the EEOC provides guidance to federal courts in interpretation of law and policy surrounding equal opportunity.
Status: Decided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Resolution is to occur with the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosions Office of Equal Opportunity.
Glenn v. Brumby
Vandy Beth Glenn was fired on the spot after informing her supervisor that she intended to undergo a gender transition. The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld her case and affirmed that discrimination on the basis of sex discrimination violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Status: Decided in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division. Decided in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
Why courts matter: LGBT issues – key message points
Courts matter for all Americans regardless of where they live, what issues they care about, and what their income is.
- Recent cases demonstrate that no matter the issue—health care, immigration, marriage equality, employment discrimination, privacy, or ethics—the judiciary will continue to play an increasingly important role in the lives of hardworking gay and transgender Americans.
- Part of the American ideal of fairness is the right to have “your day in court.” Every person in our country should have timely access to courts staffed with qualified judges to hear their disputes. Who is on the courts should matter to you if you care about the courts and you care about any issue.
- Because the Supreme Court hears so few cases, it is the district and circuit courts where people’s cases are decided with an enormous impact on their lives as well as on the law.
Americans must have—and want—equal access to a fair hearing in court.
- Unprecedented Republican obstruction has left us with 76 current and future vacancies on the federal courts leading to a backlog of cases that undermines our system of justice and makes it impossible for most Americans to have their case heard in a timely manner.
- Americans don’t like it when they feel that corporations and the wealthy have a different set of rules to play by than everybody else.
- Americans want a system that works for everybody—not just corporations and the wealthy.
The Constitution is a progressive document, and judicial decisions must be rooted in the whole Constitution—including the Bill of Rights and the amendments ratified by Americans over the last 220 years—and not selected excerpts that fit conservatives’ ideological agenda.
- The text and history of the Constitution is progressive. Both have enabled America’s social and economic progress since our nation’s founding.
Andrew Blotky is the Director of Legal Progress and Kimberly Barton is an intern with LGBT Progress at the Center for American Progress.
 In this column, “gay” is used as an umbrella term to describe individuals that identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
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Director, Legal Progress