We have been receiving a lot of questions from our clients and community members wondering what the recent election of Trump means to their legal rights. The answers are complex and not entirely known at this point. However, here is some of the information we can give you at this point:
Trump has said that he would “strongly consider” appointing justices to overrule the decision on same-sex marriage. Following that statement, Trump named Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate. Pence has a long history of taking anti-LGBT positions. Both Trump and Pence have also repeatedly stated that they believe the right to marry should be a state’s rights issue, which is contrary to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell. But it is important to understand that it would take a complex concurrence of events to challenge the Obergefell decision.
The President does not have the authority to overturn a Supreme Court decision, but he does have the ability to appoint Supreme Court Justices that would have that power. Right now there is one opening on the Supreme Court, it was vacated by Justice Scalia. The Obergefell decision was a 5 to 4 decision, with Justice Scalia being one of the 4 dissenting Justices. This means that if Trump appoints a Justice to fill Scalia’s seat that is opposed to marriage equality, the make-up of the Court would be the same as it was when Obergefell was decided. As such, there would not be sufficient votes to overrule the decision.
The difference comes if one of the other Justices were to retire or pass away. The eldest Justices are Ruth Bader Ginsburg (age 83), Anthony Kennedy (age 80) and Stephen Breyer (age 78), and all three were part of the majority ruling in favor of marriage equality. As such, if one of them leaves the bench, then Trump will nominate their replacement. If he does nominate a Justice that is opposed to marriage equality and/or other LGBTQ issues, then the makeup of the Court will change and the majority would be opposed to marriage equality and other LGBTQ rights issues. (We are not going to get into the Supreme Court nominating process in this post, but we want to acknowledge that the nominee must go through an appointment process and the make-up of the Senate and the House at the time could be important to the outcome).
Even if Trump were to fill two seats on the Court, and both replacements were anti-LGBTQ rights, that does not mean that marriage equality will be overturned. It is rare that the Court overturns a major decision, especially this soon after the ruling, as legal doctrine provides that the Court should respect and follow their own prior rulings. That, however, does not mean that groups won’t try. Those groups would need a conflict on the issue of same-sex marriage sufficient to compel the Court to revisit the issue. An example would be a state passing a law that inhibited or barred same-sex marriage in that state, something similar to what Tennessee attempted, to no avail, earlier this year.
What if the Obergefell decision was overruled? Well there is ample legal authority for the fact that a marriage that was valid when entered cannot be invalidated by a subsequent change in the law. So people that are already married should not be concerned that their marriages will be invalidated. For individuals that are not already married, but may want to do so in the future, if Obergefell was overruled then the right to marry would likely become a state’s rights issue, meaning it would depend on the state where you lived. In Colorado we would likely lose the right to marry, in light of our Constitution, and would fall back to civil unions. Keep in mind, this is really an unlikely outcome and definitely not one that will happen in the immediate future.
The wrinkle that is FADA (the First Amendment Defense Act). FADA was a federal bill introduced in 2015. FADA is relevant to this discussion because in September of 2016 Trump vowed to sign FADA if passed by Congress (it has not passed Congress up to this point). FADA essentially aims to prevent the federal government from enforcing marriage equality by preventing the federal government from taking punitive action against individuals, corporations, or organizations that discriminate against same-sex married couples. FADA would effectively legalize discrimination against same-sex married couples. We are not going to get into all of the details of FADA here, but you can read more about it here. For this discussion, understand it would not prevent or eliminate the right to marry, but it would give people and businesses the right to discriminate against same-sex married couples.
Adoption laws, and other laws related to families, are state laws and not federal laws. In the State of Colorado there are various ways to establish parental rights to children, to include adoption by both parties, second-parent adoption, step-parent adoption, and obtaining an Order under the Colorado Uniform Parentage Act. If you have obtained parental rights over your child(ren) using any of these methods, neither the President or the Federal government can take your rights away. Each of the above methods results in a Court decree or order, which is intended to be permanent and pursuant to Supreme Court case law must be recognized by Courts in all 50 states.
In the State of Colorado, our law also provides that if a child is born during a marriage (or conceived during a civil union) the child is presumed to be the child of both parties to that marriage/civil union. As this is a state law, federal law cannot change it. However, this law only creates a presumption. So, if you are the non-birth or non-donor parent, and you are relying on this law for your parental rights, you should understand that not all states may recognize your parental rights. So, if something were to happen while you are visiting another state, or if you should move to another state and then divorce or experience the death of the other parent, that presumption may not be recognized. To eliminate this risk, it is important to consider obtaining a court order. In this instance, we use Colorado’s Uniform Parentage Act to help our clients obtain an Order determining the parent-child relationship, which is a relatively simple process, but results in an Order that ensures your rights to your child.
Bottom line, if you have a Court order/decree there is no risk to your parental rights. If you do not, then you should consider options for obtaining an order/decree.
We can anticipate seeing more states and local communities considering bills to allow individuals, business, and organizations, to discriminate against people based upon “sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions,” as well as bills to impact bathroom use by transgender individuals. These laws have yet to go before the Supreme Court, so the make-up of the Court will be critical to the outcome. If upheld these laws would allow hotels, bakers, photographers, etc. to discriminate against same-sex couples seeking to get married or just use their services, and/or would require people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their biological sex. These laws will need to be closely watched, as they were hot button issues last year for the anti-LGBTQ groups and will likely be even bigger issues this year in light of the new administration.
Right now, the law in Colorado is that people and businesses cannot discriminate against you based upon your sexual orientation or gender identity. As such, businesses are not allowed to refuse to provide services to a same-sex couple seeking to get married, or refuse to serve anyone that is LGBTQ. The law in Colorado also provides that individuals can use the bathroom which is consistent with their gender identity. As such, any changes to these laws would have to come through the Colorado legislature or by way of a Court ruling that the laws are unconstitutional or violate constitutional rights of certain people. An example of how a Court ruling could arise would be the Colorado case related to the baker that refused to bake a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding. That case is currently pending and the baker is asking the Supreme Court to review it to determine if the law infringes on the baker’s rights, as he does not want to bake cakes for same-sex marriages and claims forcing him to do so violates his religious freedoms.
Executive Orders and Policies at Risk
Trump has stated that he intends to void President Obama’s Executive Orders shortly after being sworn into office. Whether this will occur, to what extent, and when, is still to be seen, but it is a risk worth understanding. The executive actions at risk include rules that protect LGBTQ people from discrimination by federal contractors, discrimination in healthcare and insurance, discrimination in HUD-funded programs and housing, bathroom usage in public schools under Title IX, as well as prison rape elimination regulations, and guidance on immigration visa petitions.
Additionally, transgender individuals are currently able to change their gender markers on their passport and social security cards without being required to document sex reassignment surgery. This was the result of policies from the State Department and the Social Security Administration. These policies may also be at risk under a new administration. I would note that if Trump were to void all of President Obama’s Executive Orders that would not eliminate these policies, instead what would have to occur are policy changes within both agencies. That said, if you are considering changing your gender markers, you might want to get that taken care of sooner rather than later, or at least keep an eye on Trump’s appointments to these agencies. The name change process is a different matter, as that process is a matter of state law. As such, the President and/or the Federal government cannot change this process. Furthermore, the process results in a Decree of Name Change, which must be recognized and honored by all Federal agencies.