Tuesday, April 10, 2018
My latest article thinking about gender and remedies.
Tracy A. Thomas, Leveling Down Gender Equality
The Supreme Court resurrected its “leveling down” jurisprudence in 2017 when it remedied an equal protection violation of gender discrimination by denying, rather than extending, the requested benefit. This approach of nullifying the benefit for all had previously been confined to a handful of cases, over thirty years old; but with the decision in Sessions v. Morales-Santana the Court brought new life and currency to this limitation of equality law. In Morales-Santana, a six-Justice majority of the Supreme Court led by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, struck down a gender-based distinction in the federal immigration statute. The statute had two different standards for mothers and fathers for determining derivative citizenship for children born abroad to unwed citizen parents. It seemed to be an easy case of facially unequal rules based on gender: one year prior U.S. residence for mothers, five years prior residence for fathers. However, the Court then refused to grant the plaintiff father the same benefit of the shorter time frame allotted mothers. It instead equalized the gendered rules by denying the previous benefit of the shorter one year to mothers. While Justice Ginsburg’s decision in Morales-Santana purported to be a strong, historic decision on the merits of equality, the denial of meaningful relief actually weakened the meaning of equality with a reach far beyond the contours of this one case.
This “leveling down” of the remedy – responding to inequality by reducing benefits to all rather than leveling up and extending benefits to the disadvantaged group -- is unusual, but not unheard of. It has been judicially endorsed in a few cases, where the courts have ratified the voluntary actions of defendants. In one example, the city of Jackson, Mississippi remedied its racially segregated swimming pools by closing down all pools. In another, Congress redressed the disparity of Social Security benefits that gave extra benefit to women by reducing the women’s benefit to the lower level previously applicable to men. And in yet another example, a high school found to have discriminated against a pregnant teen by denying her membership in the school’s National Honor Society, eliminated the honor society for all students.
Defendants seem to choose this remedy almost in defiance, refusing to grant a benefit to the petitioner with the audacity to challenge inequality. This retrenching is deemed an acceptable organizational response, as seen for example, in the example of the BBC and its overseas editors. When the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) was exposed in the media for paying its women overseas editors substantially less than its men editors, it responded by reducing the men’s pay. The women were thus not only denied equal pay for the past discrimination, but were exposed to potential peer retaliation for “rocking the boat” and making the men worse off. But for the BBC, as with other wrongdoing defendants, leveling down seemed to be a quick and easy way to erase the inequality problem.
The Court in Morales-Santana similarly believed it needed to defer to the defendant’s choice of remedy for the gender discrimination. This was ironic given that the Court in that same case expressly rejected such deference to Congress in the merits part of the decision. It departed from previous decisions upholding gender distinctions in the derivative citizenship statute based on deference to Congress’s plenary power over immigration; this time, the Court forcefully applied constitutional norms of equality to a different end. Yet, in the same breath, the Court turned around and espoused the importance of deference to the defendant’s choice for the remedy. It struggled to find such legislative intent, trying to second guess what Congress would have done had it known its derivative citizenship statute was unconstitutional. The Court decided Congress would have stricken the second of two statutory clauses, rather than the first provision or instead of utilizing the gender neutral term “parent” instead of “mother.” It thus achieved equality by a simple formal textual exercise which resulted in the elimination of the shorter-time benefit to all unwed parents.
This textualist analysis, however, depended upon the assumption that leveling down is an equally-valid remedial option for inequality. But this is where the Court went wrong. The Court failed to question the constitutionally legitimacy of this nullification in light of the constitutional mandates of due process and equal protection. Had the Court engaged in an analysis of the remedy as much as it did of the right, it might have discovered that more was demanded than mere neutral formality and equivalency of benefit across the board. Equality itself, as a constitutional right, dictates more than just empty formalism. And due process, I have argued, requires that rights be granted meaningful remedies. Together, this means that where the operative substantive right is based on equal protection, as in Morales-Santana, a meaningful remedy is one that grants the “protection” promised. For equal protection does not merely mandate a logical parallelism of genders, but normatively values equal opportunity and benefit. Examining the leveling down remedy in light of equality, beyond the strict mandates of a particular statutory benefit, reaches a different conclusion than the Court. Asking the additional question of whether the plaintiff has received a meaningful remedy for the past inequality casts doubt on the validity of leveling down relief for gender discrimination.
This Article first examines the Court’s decision in Morales-Santana and its justification for choosing the “mean remedy” of leveling down and denying a citizenship benefit to the child of both mothers and fathers. Part II then explores the Court’s general, but unexplained, impression that ordinarily leveling up is the proper remedial course. It provides a normative foundation for this remedial presumption grounded in the meaning of equal protection and in the due process right to a meaningful remedy. Given these constitutional norms, the Article then argues that the remedial calculus should be changed. Rather than accepting the Court’s assumption, renewed in Morales-Santana, that leveling down and leveling up are equally valid remedial choices, it argues for a strong presumption of leveling up in cases of gender discrimination, with only narrow exceptions permitted to rebut. Part III of the article explains that these exceptions permitting leveling down would be rare, and would be grounded in equity, but only in concerns that would inflict undue burden on the defendant or third parties from the leveling up itself. Such a deferential rule to the plaintiff’s rights better effectuates the meaning of equal protection and protects against judicial and voluntary action that by remedial formalism of leveling down could eviscerate the very meaning of equality.