Earlier this morning, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to give America a big surprise, and a very fitting surprise considering June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month. Also, the Court delivered another surprise that doubles as a potent blow to President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda and a welcomed reprieve for the State of California, along with a refusal to take up a case that could have changed how federal courts handle police brutality cases.
Why do today’s Supreme Court decisions read and sound so different?
When then Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Court in 2018, civil rights advocates sounded the alarms over President Donald Trump’s likelihood of using Kennedy’s departure as a prime opportunity to shift the Court further to the right and guarantee the new right-wing majority reverse the past six-plus decades of rulings that advanced racial justice, women’s rights, and LGBTQ+ equality.
When Trump chose Brett Kavanaugh, and then when Republican Senators stood by him and Trump despite multiple allegations of sexual assault, the outlook appeared even bleaker. And thus far, for the most part, Kavanaugh has lived down to expectations that he’d do Trump’s bidding, even if that meant forcing Wisconsin voters to choose between their health or their ballots in April.
As expected, Kavanaugh voted with the rest of the far-right bloc of Republican-appointed Justices (Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito) in a series of major cases: Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, which actually combines three anti-LGBTQ+ employment discrimination cases, and several cases challenging states’ authority to regulate guns. In addition, the Court ruled on whether they’d formally hear the U.S. v. California suit, where the Trump administration sought to overturn California’s “sanctuary state” law that restricts law enforcement agencies’ coordination with federal immigration enforcement agencies.
How did the Supreme Court rule on LGBTQ+ workers’ rights?
In Bostock, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Neil Gorsuch crossed party lines and voted with the four Democratic-appointed Justices (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan) to declare that the firing of Gerald Bostock and the late Aimee Stephens and Donald Zarda violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Anti-LGBTQ+ activists had argued that “because of sex” and “on the basis of sex” apply only to gender, and even more specifically only to cisgender individuals. However as he hinted during oral arguments last October, Justice Neil Gorsuch rejected such a narrow interpretation of the Civil Rights Act. What came as a bigger surprise was Roberts joining the majority, considering his prior votes against marriage equality cases in 2013 and 2015. So going forward, LGBTQ+ Americans will finally be afforded the same federal protection from workplace discrimination that other workers have had in place for the last 56 years (and that Nevada’s LGBTQ+ workers have had since 2011).
As Gorsuch wrote in the Court’s majority opinion, “Today, we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear.” Gorsuch then added, “An employer who fires an individual for being homosexual or transgender fires that person for traits or actions it would not have questioned in members of a different sex. Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
How did the Supreme Court rule on immigrant civil rights (and states’ rights to protect immigrant communities)?
Keeping on the civil rights front, the Trump administration hoped that the Supreme Court would strike a death blow to state and local efforts to protect immigrants’ civil rights through their respective “sanctuary” laws. The White House’s lawyers had been arguing that California was somehow illegally interfering with federal immigration enforcement by setting parameters on state and local police agencies’ proclivity to hand people over to ICE with few or no questions asked.
Not only did most Justices disagree with Trump, but even both Trump-appointed Justices (Gorsuch and Kavanaugh) joined with Roberts and the four Democratic-appointed Justices to remind the White House that the Supreme Court has already ruled that state and local governments have no legal obligation to enforce federal immigration law. By refusing to hear the case, the Court has effectively ended the White House’s suit against California.
As of now, and contrary to some far-right politicians asserting otherwise, Nevada currently has no “sanctuary” laws on the books. But considering today’s Supreme Court decision, any legislators who decide to give it another try can at least take comfort that there’s no longer any immediate danger of the Supreme Court reversing such action(s).
What else did the Supreme Court decide on today, and why does it matter?
Seemingly buried by the Court’s other rulings, the Justices also declined to take up a suit that could have made a big difference in how federal courts handle police brutality cases that are now front and center amidst the Black Lives Matter protests happening throughout the nation. Long story short: In an unsigned order, the Court rejected an attempt to get them to reassess the nearly 40-year-old “qualified immunity” doctrine that has resulted in lower (federal) courts overwhelmingly rejecting excessive use of force lawsuits. Now that the Supreme Court has refused to change this judicial practice, activists will have to turn (back) to Congress, as House Democrats have included an end to “qualified immunity” in their comprehensive Justice in Policing Act.
In another round of “decisions to not make a decision that end up being very decisive”, a supermajority of Supreme Court Justices rejected requests to hear nearly a dozen lawsuits challenging state and local authority to enact their own gun safety laws. In particular, pro-gun activists attempted to use the federal judiciary to overturn New Jersey’s (Rogers v. Grewal) and Maryland’s (Malpasso v. Pellozi) respective laws regulating the carrying of handguns in public. Pro-gun activists here have occasionally made similar noises about Nevada’s new gun safety laws (such as expansion of background checks and the state’s “red flag law”), but the Supreme Court has almost certainly signaled that any federal suit against this state’s gun laws probably won’t succeed any time soon.
Though today feels like a huge day when it comes to U.S. Supreme Court action, the action isn’t even completely over yet. The Court has yet to issue opinions on a potentially precedent-setting case involving Louisiana’s attempt to “regulate” its abortion clinics out of business, and on the future of the DACA program launched by then President Barack Obama in 2012 to offer deportation relief to select individuals who came into the U.S. undocumented as children. The Court typically finishes issuing opinions at the end of June, and Justices are expected to issue another 16 opinions this term (including the cases mentioned above).
Cover photo by Jeff Kubina, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia.