Gender and the Law Prof Blog

Editor: Tracy A. Thomas
University of Akron School of Law

Monday, November 18, 2019

Leveling Down Gender Equality by Denying Remedies for Equal Protection Violations

Pleased to see that my recent article, Leveling Down Gender Equality, in the Harvard Journal of Law & Gender (2019), was reviewed favorably today in JOTWELL   Chao-Ju Chen, Equality for Whom: The Curious Case of RBG's Equality and Morales-Santana's Nationality.

Sessions v. Morales-Santana is a curious case of gender equality, simultaneously celebrated for refining the Supreme Court’s view on sex-classification while condemned for providing the plaintiff “the mean remedy.”1 Striking down a gender-based distinction in the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) by arguing against legislating based on gender stereotypes, it is a landmark success for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the liberal feminist brand of equality jurisprudence. Refusing to grant the plaintiff citizenship by offering a leveling-down remedy, it is a cruel blow to the plaintiff, whose win in the nation’s equality law is a loss in his unequal life. Tracy A. Thomas’ Leveling Down Gender Equality provides a deliberate critique that details the Court’s decision in the historical context of immigration laws and gender equality review, sheds light on the dark sides of celebrity Justice Ginsburg’s gender equality jurisprudence, and proposes a way forward: “leveling up” as the presumption. It is a must-read for anyone who wonders what has happened to Ginsburg’s gender equality jurisprudence and what to do about the Court’s mean remedy.***

The core mission of Leveling Down Gender Equality is to rebut the Court’s remedy presumption that leveling-up (extension) and leveling-down (nullification) are equally valid remedies for a violation of equality and to argue for the presumption of leveling up to protect the right to a meaningful remedy. From Thomas’ point of view, the answer to the curious case of Ginsburg’s equality and Morales-Santana’s nationality lies in the Court’s choice of remedy, rather than in its choice of equality review (anti-classification or anti-subordination). She began her adventure by first explaining the Court’s mean remedy and alternative remedies considered but not adopted in detail (Part I), then argued for the presumption of leveling up (Part II) and reasoned why leveling down should be treated as a rare exception (Part III).

The highlights of Part I lie in its success in locating the mean remedy in the context of Ginsburg’s gender equality jurisprudence and judicial philosophy. Thomas refuted the convenient guess that the mean remedy was a pragmatic strategy to achieve majority, and argued instead that Ginsburg’s choice of eliminating preference for women “fits within her bigger concern about stereotypes, backlash, and denial stemming from protectionism” (P. 190) and was guided by her “deeper jurisprudential concerns about systematic gender norms” (P. 191) and preference for judicial constraint. Comparing what “then-professor Ginsburg” had said to what “Justice Ginsburg” did in Morales-Santana, Thomas showed how Justice Ginsburg, while maintaining then-professor Ginsburg’s preference for the “legislative-like role of the court” in remedial decisions, failed to employ then-professor Ginsburg’s proposed guidelines, which would have supported leveling up. She forcefully demonstrated that Justice Ginsburg “had the precedents for leveling up on her side, yet she adopted the countervailing view in the name of judicial restraint” (P. 193), and criticized Ginsburg’s omission, misreading and non-engagement with gender equality precedents which would have required stronger evidence of legislative intent and evaluations of equitable considerations as well as their implications that extension, rather than nullification, had been a generally preferred choice.***

The second step of Thomas’ mission is to establish the presumption of leveling up and leveling down as the rare exception. Relying on the familiar feminist critique that equality means more than mere formal equal treatment, Thomas argued for equality as equal concern. She contended that leveling down for gender equality is normatively inconsistent with constitutional requirement, because “denying a benefit in order to rectify inequality . . . fails to honor or effectuate the ultimate meaning of the operative constitutional right.” (P. 200.) She cited Palmer v. Thompson as an example to show how closing down all pools to remedy racially segregated swimming pools serves to perpetuate and reinforce, rather than abolish, racial inequality. On top of leaving inequality intact, she argued, leveling down will also discourage legal actions for justice and compromise citizens’ ability to “act as private attorney generals to help enforce the public laws of gender equality.” (P. 201.)

In her arguments against leveling down as a meaningful remedy for plaintiffs, Thomas invoked Ginsburg’s own judicial record to demonstrate how Justice Ginsburg has deviated from her professional past. In United States v. Virginia, Ginsburg made clear that the plaintiff’s rightful position was the targeted goal of equal protection remedy, which demanded to eliminate both the ongoing discrimination and the discriminatory effects of the past. Writing for the majority, Ginsburg rejected the defendant’s choice of remedy to provide a separate military education for women, and emphasized that the key question for the Court was the plaintiff’s denied benefit. Again, should Ginsburg have done what Ginsburg did in Virginia, an extension would have been the remedy for Morales-Santana. Besides, Ginsburg’s decision does not survive the test of valuing equitable concerns relevant to overcoming leveling up (cost or economic impact, harms to third parties, and broader national policy concerns). The legislative history of intent to discriminate against Mexican and Asian people should have been taken into account.***

At the end of the article, Thomas delivered her final blow to the case and concluded that “such a case does not leave a promising legacy for gender equality jurisprudence, but instead takes one giant constitutional step backwards.” (P. 218.) 

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/gender_law/2019/11/pleased-to-see-that-my-recent-article-leveling-down-gender-equality-in-the-harvard-journal-of-law-gender-2019-was-revie.html

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