Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits firing an employee simply because of sexual orientation or gender identity is truly momentous and will mean improved employment security for countless people throughout the country, notably those who live in the majority of jurisdictions with no state- or local-level prohibition on such discrimination. Beyond that wonderful take-away, there is a lot to digest. Much of the mainstream coverage matches my thoughts when I was reading the opinion, but I have a few additional thoughts I’d like to set out regarding Justice Gorsuch’s role and the similarities and differences between this decision and the sexual orientation cases of recent years.
That an opinion prohibiting LGBT discrimination would come from Justice Gorsuch is certainly a major surprise, but Reagan-appointee Justice Kennedy was no obvious ally when he wrote Lawrence v. Texas (striking down sodomy laws) in 2003 or US v. Windsor (striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act) ten years later, and we were still on the edge of our seats in 2015 before he released the majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges (holding that the 14th Amendment requires the state to recognize same-sex marriage). (As an aside, all those decisions were issued on June 26. Yesterday was a break from what some people thought was a tradition, even if based on a very small sample size.)
Still, there is a notable difference in style and tone. The opening paragraph in Lawrence declares that “[t]he instant case involves liberty of the person both in its spatial and more transcendent dimensions.” Obergefell begins “[t]he Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity,” and Kennedy gets more poetic and philosophical from there.
In contrast, Bostock begins “[s]ometimes small gestures can have unexpected consequences. Major initiatives practically guarantee them.” It then adds that “[i]n our time, few pieces of federal legislation rank in significance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” but that’s as close as we get to recognition of the importance of the rights at issue in these cases. The emphasis — the chosen framework — is on the meaning of the words in the statute; an academic exercise rather than an examination of the principles of rights.
That difference is legally appropriate and, to some extent, required because Kennedy was interpreting constitutional provisions that required him to expound the meaning of “liberty” while Gorsuch was charged with interpreting the meaning of the word “sex” in a Congressional statute. Moreover, other cases had already made clear that “sex” includes sex stereotyping and sexual harassment, and that the statute prohibits other kinds of discrimination that might be given a label that is not one that actually appears in the text of the statue. It is very hard to see an intellectually satisfying way to say LGBT discrimination is not sex discrimination if we’ve already accepted that it is unlawful to discriminate against a woman for being a “tomboy” (to say nothing of the fact that we also (almost) universally accept that it is discrimination on the basis of race even if the person has no bias against any individual’s race but only interracial marriage).
So the Gorsuch opinion is rather bland as judged by its analysis and certainly by its rhetoric. His approach is methodical: there’s a statute that uses specific words, we have established analytical frameworks for how we decide what those words mean as well as significant relevant precedent, and so Gorsuch went through a routine analytical process and came to a logical conclusion.
What is remarkable is that he did not shy away from his own conclusion. It is reassuring that he would rule in a way that almost certainly is against his personal political views and it is deeply troubling that it’s remarkable to us that a Supreme Court Justice appointed by Trump actually cares about analytical consistency and intellectual honesty.
This most certainly does not mean that he is likely to side with what remains of the liberal wing of the Court as a general matter. It doesn’t even mean that he has moderated his views or shifted to an understanding of the law that is closer to those who believe in a “living constitution” or employ other analytical frameworks that more often lead to progressive conclusions. It only means that he might not engage in the kind of tortured logic on display in the dissenting opinions in order to avoid a particular outcome when his own legal analysis happens to bring him to a conclusion that is also one a progressive (or even someone like Posner) might arrive at through different means. (My initial reaction to Obergefell five years ago also noted that Kennedy got there through a narrow framework that was less valuable for other LGBT rights issues.)
We’ll have to see if this lasts, and it will only be relevant in rare instances. The way Gorsuch approaches other legal issues (such as the free exercise clause and how it applies the the ministerial exception, to mention just one case that should be decided later this month) almost certainly won’t wind up pulling him to conclusions that conflict with his ideology. Regardless, it’s nice to be surprised in this way. Scalia used to occasionally rule in ways that contrasted with how people thought of him, Roberts has repeatedly done so now, and it looks like there’s another Justice who just might surprise us from time to time.