By Lisa Soronen
The fate of the most controversial case the Supreme Court has agreed to decide this term is uncertain now that the Department of Education (DE) has issued a “Dear Colleague” letter withdrawing previous letters requiring school districts to allow transgender students to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity.
Title IX prohibits school districts that receive federal funds from discriminating “on the basis of sex.” A Title IX regulation states if school districts maintain separate bathrooms (locker rooms, showers, etc.) “on the basis of sex” they must provide comparable facilities for the other sex.
In a 2015 letter DE interpreted the Title IX regulation to mean that if schools provide for separate boys’ and girls’ bathrooms, transgender students must be allowed to use the bathroom consistent with their gender identity.
The DE and Department of Justice (DOJ) reaffirmed this stance in a May 2016 “Dear Colleague” letter. The February 2017 “Dear Colleague” letter takes no position on whether the term “sex” in Title IX includes gender identity.
G.G. is transgender. The Gloucester County School Board prevented him from using the boy’s bathroom. He sued the district arguing that is discriminated against him in violation of Title IX.
The Supreme Court has agreed to decide two questions in Gloucester County School Board v. G.G. First, should it defer to DOE’s letter interpreting the regulation? Second, putting the letter aside, should the Title IX regulation be interpreted as DOE suggests?
The Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of G.G. The court gave Auer deference to DOE’s letter.
Per Auer v. Robbins (1997) a court generally must defer to an agency’s interpretation of its ambiguous regulations. According to the Fourth Circuit, the Title IX regulation is ambiguous because it is “susceptible to more than one plausible reading because it permits both the Board’s reading— determining maleness or femaleness with reference exclusively to genitalia—and the Department’s interpretation—determining maleness or femaleness with reference to gender identity.”
Despite the 2015 and 2016 letters being rescinded both parties still want the Supreme Court to decide this case. At SCOTUSblog Amy Howe describes some of the Court’s options: “Among other things, they could send the case back to the 4th Circuit for it to weigh in more fully on the Title IX question in light of the government’s changed position, or they could forge ahead and rule on that question themselves. At the very least, we should know more about the justices’ inclinations when they hear oral argument in the case next month, if not before.”
Putting aside the factual context of this case, state and local governments, acting through the State and Local Legal Center, have criticized Auer deference in Supreme Court amicus briefs. The Gloucester County School Board asked the Supreme Court to decide whether to overturn Auer. The Court refused to consider this question.
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and a frequent contributor to the NCSL Blog on legal issues. Joellen Kralik, a policy associate in NCSL’s Education Program, also contributed to this post..