Wednesday, November 18, 2015
In an opinion denying a motion to dismiss in Love v. Johnson, United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Michigan Nancy Edmunds has concluded there is a fundamental privacy right in one's transgender status under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause. The constitutional challenge is to Michigan's policy for changing the sex designation on state-issued identification, including drivers licenses. Under the policy, the only document that is accepted as a proof of sex designation is a certified birth certificate. Thus, transgendered individuals would need an amended certified birth certificate - - - for which the procurement process is described as "onerous" - - - and could not use passports, which are specifically excluded by the Michigan policy.
In finding a fundamental right, the judge considered Sixth Circuit precedent that there were two types of fundamental rights protected “by the right to privacy that is rooted in substantive due process”: the interest in “independence in making certain kinds of important decisions,” and the “interest in avoiding disclosure of personal matters.” The court found that the latter - - - the "informational privacy" interest - - - was implicated. This right must not only relate to a "fundamental liberty interest" but must satisfy either of two conditions: "the release of personal information could lead to bodily harm" or "the information released was of a sexual, personal, and humiliating nature." The judge found that both 'the potential for harm' and 'the personal nature' conditions were satisfied. The judge rejected the State's argument that the plaintiffs had not satisfied the harm prong because they had not shown sufficiently specific danger to themselves; it recognized "hostility and intolerance" and cited supporting Second Circuit caselaw.
The judge then applied strict scrutiny, writing that when
state action infringes upon a fundamental right, “such action will be upheld under the substantive due process component of the Fourteenth Amendment only where the governmental action furthers a compelling state interest, and is narrowly drawn to further that state interest.” Defendant vaguely identifies two purported interests–albeit not in the context of a fundamental right–in support of the Policy: (1) “maintaining accurate state identification documents” to “promote effective law enforcement” and, (2) ensuring “that the information on the license is consistent with other state records describing the individual.”
[citations and footnote omitted]. The judge found that the means chosen - - - the restrictive policy - - - bears "little, if any, connection" to the "purported interests." The judge considered two facts especially salient. First, the Michigan policy applied only to those wishing to change the sex designation on a drivers license, not to procure an original drivers license (in which case a passport would be acceptable identification). Second, Michigan's policy was especially restrictive: the majority of other states, as well as the federal government, did not require a certified birth certificate and thus the judge stated she was "unable to conclude at this juncture that the Policy narrowly serves the state’s interest in maintaining “accurate” identification documents or promoting effective law enforcement."
While the complaint raised other constitutional claims, including an equal protection claim, the judge found the motion to dismiss need not be considered as to those claims given the conclusion that there is a valid substantive due process claim which will move forward.