Federal judge tosses suit against CA trans prison law

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday May 16, 2024
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The Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla. Photo: Courtesy ABC30
The Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla. Photo: Courtesy ABC30

A federal judge threw out an anti-trans lawsuit challenging California's policies with regard to transgender incarcerated people, ruling that the state corrections department is immune from the litigation.

As the Bay Area Reporter previously reported, the plaintiffs, all incarcerated cisgender women, had attempted to usurp California's groundbreaking law, Senate Bill 132, that provides a mechanism for trans inmates to be housed at a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation facility based on their preference, whether that be by their gender identity or sex assigned at birth. Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) authored the law in 2020; Governor Gavin Newsom signed it that year, and the law went into effect in 2021.

The law also requires CDCR to record each incarcerated individual's self-reported gender identity, gender pronouns, and honorifics. All CDCR staff, contractors, and volunteers must consistently use the gender pronouns and honorifics that the individual has requested in all communications with or regarding them, according to the law.

In November 2021, the four cisgender incarcerated women sued CDCR, alleging SB 132 is unconstitutional under both the state and federal constitutions on several grounds, including the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The case is Chandler v. CDCR.

"This law converts women's correctional facilities to mixed-sex correctional facilities, depriving women — but not men — of a single-sex prison environment," stated the Women's Liberation Front, which represents the four plaintiffs. "This law treats inmates differently based on identity; it affords special privileges and protections to people who claim a transgender or nonbinary identity, such as the right to choose your bed assignment or cellmate."

The plaintiffs also alleged a violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause — arguing SB 132 tried to establish a religion.

"This law imposes a faith-based belief system founded on the unscientific idea that a person's sex is subjective, changeable, and/or defined by one's inner thoughts and feelings, thus establishing a government-sanctioned religious doctrine that is not based in material reality," WoLF stated.

Several groups on the other side of the issue were granted the right to intervene in the suit and join the state's request to dismiss the case, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Transgender Law Center, and law firm O'Melveny & Myers.

The legal fight came to an end May 14, when Judge Jennifer L. Thurston dismissed the suit. Thurston, of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, ruled that CDCR has immunity under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states, "The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State."

Thurston ruled that "As a state agency, it is a long-established principle that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is immune from suit in federal court under the 11th Amendment."

Thurston also noted in the footnotes that "as a matter of law, the court cannot plausibly determine that transgenderism is a religion," and that several of the other harms alleged are speculative (such as the fear of sexual assault, for example).

A trans woman expressed gratitude that the law remains in effect.

"CDCR's men's prisons are not a safe place for me," stated Katie Brown, a trans woman who is one of the intervenors in the lawsuit, in a court filing. "As a transgender woman, I belong in a women's facility. I deserve to be called by my correct name and pronouns. S.B. 132 seeks to protect these rights and affirm my dignity."

The other intervenors praised the decision in a May 16 news release.

"SB 132 was an important harm reduction measure to improve safety and dignity for transgender Californians in our state prisons," stated Amanda C. Goad, Audrey Irmas director of the ACLU of Southern California LGBTQ, Gender & Reproductive Justice Project. "The court was right to dismiss this baseless challenge to SB 132, and the state of California needs to stop dragging its feet on implementing the law."

Lambda Legal staff attorney Nora Huppert stated, "We are relieved that the court saw through this legally flawed challenge, and rejected its distorted arguments. In dismissing this challenge, the court recognized that California has an obligation to protect the safety of incarcerated transgender people."

Shawn Thomas Meerkamper, managing attorney at the Transgender Law Center, stated, "Californians of all backgrounds, races, and genders know that everyone deserves respect, dignity, and to live free from discrimination. The court saw this lawsuit for what it was and understood that SB 132 simply requires CDCR to live up to its independent obligation to keep all people safe and free from harm."

Wiener was also pleased.

"Violence against trans people in prison is a huge problem," he stated. "Trans people are routinely targeted and victimized in prison, reflecting broader violence against them in society. SB 132 provides trans people with a path to be housed in a prison facility where they'll be safer. Anti-trans activists have been demonizing this law since the day it was enacted. I'm gratified that the court rejected this lawsuit."

WoLF's legal team told the B.A.R., "This is not the end of this case. We have already seen the devastating result of these policies in the two years it took to get response: rape, pregnancy, and repeated violation of women's constitutional rights.

"We will continue pursuing every avenue of justice for Janine, Tomiekia, Krystal, Nadia, and all incarcerated women in California," the legal team added, referring to the first names of the plaintiffs.

According to CDCR, as of May 4, 344 people housed in male institutions have requested to be housed in female institutions since SB 132 was implemented. Of those only 44 have been approved for the transfer. Fifty-nine transfer requests were denied and 84 changed their minds. The rest of the cases, 157, are still pending.

Updated, 5/17/24: This article has been updated with a comment from the plaintiffs' legal team.

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