Death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Removes a Staunch Advocate of LGBTQ Rights from the Supreme Court
By Arthur S. Leonard
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020, age 87, having served on the Supreme Court of the United States since August 10, 1993. Throughout her tenure on the Court she had been a staunch supporter of LGBTQ rights, joining all of the pro-LGBTQ rights majorities and dissenting from all of the adverse decisions except for two in which the Court was unanimous.
In 1993, she joined Justice David Souter’s opinion for the Court in Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994), in which the Court ruled that a transgender inmate who was repeatedly subjected to sexual assault in prison could hold prison officials liable for damages under the 8th Amendment by showing that they knew the inmate faced “a substantial risk of serious harm” and that the officials “disregard[ed] that risk by failing to take reasonable measures to abate it.” Although three members of the Court wrote concurring opinions, Justice Ginsburg did not write in this case.
In 1995, Justice Ginsburg joined Justice Souter’s opinion for the unanimous Court in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, Inc., 515 U.S. 557 (1995), holding that the Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade was an expressive association whose organizers had a right to exclude from their parade an organization whose message they did not want to include. Thus, the Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group was not entitled to an injunction requiring the parade organizers to allow them to participate under the banner bearing their name. While holding that Massachusetts could not enforce its public accommodations law banning sexual orientation discrimination against the parade organizers, the Court affirmed that it was within the legislative and constitutional authority of the state to generally ban public accommodations from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In 1996, Justice Ginsburg joined the Court’s opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Jr., in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996), holding that Colorado violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment by enacting a state constitutional amendment that prohibited the state or any of its subdivisions from protecting “homosexuals” from discrimination. Justice Kennedy wrote that the state could not treat gay people as “strangers from the law” or categorically single gay people out for exclusion based on animus against homosexuality. The Court’s vote was 6–3, with Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas joining Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissenting opinion.
Justice Ginsburg joined Justice Scalia’s opinion for the unanimous Court in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998), which embraced a textualist interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, reversing a decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that a man who was subjected to severe and pervasive harassment of a sexual nature by male co-workers in an all-male workplace could not bring a hostile work environment sex discrimination claim under that statute. To the contrary, ruled the Court, nothing in the language of the statute suggested that so-called “same-sex harassment” was not actionable, so long as the plaintiff showed that he was harassed because of his sex. Justice Scalia memorably wrote that even though “male-on-male sexual harassment in the workplace was assuredly not the principal evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII, … statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.” This mode of interpretation provided a foundation for the Court’s ruling during the October 2019 Term in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 140 S. Ct. 1731 (2020), the last LGBTQ rights victory in which Justice Ginsburg participated.
In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000), the Court ruled 5–4 that the Boy Scouts of America enjoyed a 1st Amendment right to exclude gay men from serving as adult leaders of their Boy Scout troops. Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote for the Court in an opinion that drew upon Hurley as precedent. Justice Ginsburg joined two dissenting opinions, one by Justice John Paul Stevens and the other by Justice David Souter.
Justice Ginsburg was part of the 6–3 majority that voted to hold that a Texas law penalizing “homosexual conduct” was unconstitutional as applied to private, consensual adult sexual activity. Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003). Ginsburg joined the opinion for the Court by Justice Kennedy, which based its ruling on the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, and overruled Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986), which had rejected a Due Process challenge to Georgia’s sodomy law. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor concurred in the judgement but would not vote to overrule Bowers (a case in which she had joined the Court’s opinion), rather premising her vote on Equal Protection. Scalia dissented, in any opinion joined by Rehnquist and Thomas.
In 2006, Justice Ginsburg joined the unanimous opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, Inc., 547 U.S. 47 (2006), rejecting a 1st Amendment claim by a group of law schools and law faculty members that their institutions should have a right to exclude military recruiters because of the Defense Department’s policy excluding gay people, among others, from the service. The “Solomon Amendment” to the Defense Appropriations Act specified that educational institutions that did not accord “equal access” to military recruiters could be barred from receiving federal financial assistance. Justice Roberts premised the Court’s ruling on Congress’s power under Article I of the Constitution to “raise and support armies,” holding that since Congress could constitutionally impose a direct mandate on educational institutions to allow access to military recruiters, it could surely support the recruiting function through the less direct means of denying federal financial assistance to such educational institutions. The continuing controversies over military recruitment at law schools ended when Congress voted in 2010 to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy against military service by gay people and the Defense Department revised its regulations accordingly in 2011.
Justice Ginsburg wrote for the Court in 2010 in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, 561 U.S. 661 (2010), rejecting a claim by the Christian Legal Society (CLS) chapter at Hastings Law School that the school’s denial of official status to CLS because of its exclusionary membership policy violated the 1st Amendment. The Court divided 5–4, with Justices Kennedy and Stevens issuing concurring opinions, from which it was reasonable to infer that Justice Ginsburg assembled her majority by seizing upon a factual stipulation entered at the district court that the school’s policy required that student organizations allow all students to join, even though the wording of the policy prohibited discrimination based on enumerated characteristics, including sexual orientation, which was the “sticking point” with CLS. Writing in dissent, Justice Samuel Alito angrily charged the court with failing to address the explicit policy that the school had adopted and then relied upon to withdraw recognition from CLS. He claimed that the “all comers” policy was an artifact of the school’s defense to the lawsuit rather than the policy in effect when CLS’s recognized status was denied. He argued that the Court was unconstitutionally enabling viewpoint discrimination by the public law school. Justices Roberts, Scalia and Thomas joined the dissent.
In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, 573 U.S. 682 (2014), writing in dissent, Justice Ginsburg rejected the Court’s holding that commercial businesses could assert claims to being exempt from coverage requirements of contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act as an interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In his opinion for the 5–4 majority, Justice Alito observed (in dicta) that an employer could not rely on religious freedom claims to defend against a race discrimination claim under Title VII. In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg noted religious objections to homosexuality by some employers and questioned whether the Court would find that employers would have a right under RFRA statutes (both federal RFRA and state laws patterned on it) to discriminate on that basis. She specifically noted the case of Elane Photography v. Willock, in which the New Mexico Supreme Court had rejected a state RFRA defense by a wedding photographer being sued under the state’s public accommodations law for refusing to photograph a lesbian commitment ceremony, and in which the Supreme Court had recently denied a petition for certiorari, as well as a state law case from Minnesota involving a health club owned by “born-again” Christians who denied membership to gay people in violation of a local anti-discrimination law.
Justice Ginsburg joined opinions for the Court by Justice Kennedy in United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744 (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015), both 5–4 rulings, in which the Court invoked concepts of Due Process and Equal Protection to invalidate Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages recognized by some states at that time), and to strike down state constitutional and statutory provisions denying same-sex couples the right to marry or recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states. As senior justice in the majority in both cases, Justice Kennedy assigned himself the opinions for the Court. As they were 5–4 decisions, Justice Ginsburg’s vote was necessary to the outcome in both cases. During the two years between the decision in Windsor and the decision in Obergefell, Justice Ginsburg became the first sitting member of the Court to officiate at a same-sex wedding ceremony, an action that led some to call for her recusal in Obergefell.
In Hollingsworth v. Perry, 570 U.S. 693 (2013), Justice Ginsburg joined Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion holding that the proponents of California Proposition 8, which had amended the state’s constitution to define marriage solely as the union of a man and a woman, lacked Article III standing to appeal the district court’s decision holding that measure unconstitutional, where the state had declined to appeal that ruling. The Court’s opinion expressed no view as to the constitutionality of Proposition 8, focusing entirely on the question of standing, but its effect was to allow same-sex couples to resume marrying in California, which they had not been able to do from the effective date of Prop 8’s passage in November 2008. Of course, California same-sex couples who subsequently married, as well as those who had married in the five-month period prior to the passage of Prop 8, benefited from federal recognition of their marriages under U.S. v. Windsor, which was issued by the Court on the same day as Hollingsworth. Justice Kennedy dissented, in an opinion joined by Thomas, Alito and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, claiming that the Court should have reached the merits.
In two subsequent per curiam rulings, Justice Ginsburg, who did not dissent, presumably joined in the Court’s disposition of the cases. In 2016, the Court ruled per curiam in V.L. v. E.L., 136 S. Ct. 1017 (2016), that the courts of one state must accord full faith and credit to a second-parent adoption approved by a court in another state, where the court that approved the adoption had general jurisdiction over the subject of adoptions. The case involved a second-parent adoption in Georgia by the same-sex partner of the child’s birth mother. The women were temporarily residing in Georgia, as courts in their home state of Alabama would not approve such an adoption. They moved back to Alabama after the adoption in Georgia was final. In a subsequent split-up, the birth mother urged Alabama courts to refuse to recognize the adoption, arguing that had it been appealed, the appellate courts in Georgia would have found it invalid. There was no dissent from the U.S. Supreme Court per curiam, which asserted that the Full Faith and Credit Clause requires state courts to recognize decisions by courts of other states that had jurisdiction to render those decisions under the laws of their states, regardless of whether an unappealed decision might have been overturned by a higher court. And, in 2017 the Court ruled per curiam in Pavan v. Smith, 137 S. Ct. 2075 (2017), that the state of Arkansas’s refusal to apply the spousal presumption to name the wife of a woman who gave birth to a child as a parent of the child on the child’s birth certificate violated the 14th Amendment as construed by the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges. In a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Alito and Thomas, Justice Neil Gorsuch argued that the decision in Obergefell did not necessarily decide this case, so the Court should have called for merits briefing and oral argument rather than deciding the case based on the cert documents.
In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018), Justice Ginsburg wrote a dissent, joined by Justice Sotomayor, rejecting the Court’s decision to reverse the Colorado Court of Appeals and the state’s Civil Rights Commission in their ruling that a bakery violated the state’s civil rights law by refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court in the 7–2 ruling was premised on the majority’s conclusion that the baker, who was relying on 1st Amendment free exercise and free speech arguments, had been denied a “neutral forum” for the decision of his case due to hostility to his religious views arguably expressed by two members of the Commission during the administrative hearing process. Justice Ginsburg observed in dissent that there was no evidence of a lack of neutrality on the part of the Colorado Court of Appeals, which had affirmed the Commission’s ruling, and she agreed with that court’s conclusion that application of the public accommodations law to the bakery did not violate the 1st Amendment. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Kennedy noted Supreme Court precedent that generally private actors, such as businesses, do not have a 1st Amendment Free Exercise right to fail to comply with the requirements of state laws of general application that do not specifically target religious practices or beliefs.
Finally, in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 140 S. Ct. 1731 (2020), Justice Ginsburg joined Justice Gorsuch’s opinion for the Court holding that discrimination in employment because of sexual orientation or transgender status is, at least in part, discrimination because of sex and thus actionable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The vote in this case was 6–3, with dissenting opinions by Justice Alito, joined by Thomas, and separately by Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In his dissent, Justice Alito asserted that the reasoning of the Court’s opinion would affect the interpretation of more than 100 provisions of federal law, which he listed in an appendix to his opinion. The immediate effect of the opinion was to ratify the position of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which had earlier recognized its jurisdiction over such claims, and to extend protection against discrimination on these grounds most importantly to employees in the majority of states where state or local laws did not provide such protection. However, because private sector protection under Title VII is limited to employers with at least 15 employees, the majority of private sector employers would not be covered by this ruling. This decision, which consolidated appeals from three circuits, presented the Court’s first merits ruling on a transgender rights case since Farmer v. Brennan (1993), although of course the marriage equality rulings, sub silentio, effectively overruled decisions by several state courts refusing to recognize marriages involving a transgender spouse that were challenged is being invalid “same-sex” marriages.
During her career prior to her judicial service, Justice Ginsburg taught at Rutgers and Columbia Law Schools and was the founder and first director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project. Litigation by that Project under her direction persuaded the Supreme Court in a series of important rulings beginning with Reed v. Reed in 1971 to recognize sex discrimination claims under the Equal Protection Clause, laying the doctrinal foundation for equal protection claims by LGBT litigants in later years. Although she was seen as a moderate on many issues at the time of her appointment to the Court by President Bill Clinton, she went on to become a leader of the Court’s progressive wing and in the 21st century a frequent and pointed dissenter as the center of gravity of the Court moved in a more conservative direction with the appointment of justices by George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump.
Justice Ginsburg’s death left a Supreme Court vacancy less than two months before national elections for President and Congress. Senate Republicans, who had blocked consideration of President Barack Obama’s nomination of D.C. Circuit Chief Judge Merrick Garland after Justice Scalia died in February 2016, arguing that a Supreme Court appointment should not be made in a presidential election year, now claimed that this was no bar to approving a replacement when the President and the incumbent Senate majority were of the same party. President Trump announced his nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on September 26. Based on her record, Judge Barrett would likely move the Court to the right, with a 6–3 Republican-appointed conservative majority for the first time in generations, leading to discussion among Democrats about the possibility of expanding the Court if former Vice-President Joseph R. Biden is elected president and Democrats win a majority in the Senate. Such a plan would require abolishing the filibuster rule by which a minority in the Senate can block a floor vote on legislation, unless the Republicans retained fewer than 40 seats as a result of the election and thus would be unable to block legislation under the filibuster rule without successfully recruiting some Democrats to join them. Since the filibuster rule was repealed for Supreme Court nominations by a bare majority of the Senate in 2017 in order to confirm Justice Gorsuch in the face of a potential Democratic filibuster, it appeared likely at the time Trump announced his nomination that Judge Barrett would be confirmed, but the timing of a floor vote had not been announced by the end of September.