In three cases argued last week—Bostock v. Clayton County, Altitude Express v. Zarda, and Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC—the Supreme Court confronted this question: Does Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination “because of [an] individual’s … sex” forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity?
Several lower courts and most academic commentators have said that the answer is yes. The logic is pretty simple. If a male employee is fired because he has sexual relationships with men, but female employees in the same workplace can have sexual relationships with men without getting fired, then the male employee was fired “because of [his] sex,” inasmuch as he would not have been fired had his sex been different. The same is true of a woman assigned female at birth who is fired because she lives as a man. If you’re tempted by the thought that firing a person for having a same-sex partner doesn’t discriminate on the basis of sex because the employer would fire people of any sex who have same-sex partners, ask yourself whether a law prohibiting people of any race to marry outside their racial groups, or to ride in a railroad car designated for people of a different race, discriminates on the basis of race. (It does.)
To be sure, nobody thinks that Congress in 1964 intended to ban workplace discrimination against LGBTQ persons when it prohibited discrimination “because of … sex.” But the words of the law turn out to do so, regardless of what Congress had in mind. The question before the Supreme Court, therefore, is what prevails when the text of a statute does something that the legislature that passed the statute did not have in mind—and would not have endorsed.
The justice to whom that question is posed most sharply, and who may well cast the deciding vote in these cases, is Justice Neil Gorsuch. Gorsuch may find himself pulled in different directions by two of his strong jurisprudential commitments. On one hand, he generally thinks that courts should not be engines of social change, including by expanding the reach of antidiscrimination laws. Those sorts of changes, he believes, should come from legislatures. But on the other hand, Gorsuch is a proud and articulate textualist. In his oft-repeated view, a court applying a law passed by a legislature should be governed by what the words of the statute actually say, regardless of whether the court thinks the words of the statute embody good public policy. Nor should courts let the meaning of statutory text be overcome by considerations about the general purposes of the law or what members of the legislature said or thought during the lawmaking process. What matters is the text of the statute. And the text that Congress adopted, read literally, covers LGBTQ scenarios.
To be sure, all nine justices would probably describe themselves as textualists of one sort of another in cases of statutory interpretation. None of them thinks that courts can ignore what statutes say. But most are more open to considering other factors as well, including the legislature’s purpose. (The leading alternatives to textualist approaches to statutory interpretation are usually called “purposivist,” because they advocate taking into account what Congress meant to accomplish, not just what the law literally says.) Gorsuch’s textualism is the most uncompromising, and being a principled textualist is a big part—perhaps the biggest part—of Gorsuch’s public identity as a jurist.
So if Gorsuch were to write that employers are able to discriminate on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation—whether because of a concern about precipitating social change or otherwise—critics will surely charge that his textualism is more rhetorical than real. They will say that he pretends to have a consistent interpretive theory, but he’s willing to jettison that theory when he doesn’t like the result it would lead to. That criticism might sting. But in the end, the charge of playing fast and loose with his principles is not the most significant problem Gorsuch would have to face if he ruled for the employers. He would also risk exposing one of the key premises of textualism as flawed.
At oral argument, Gorsuch recognized the strength of the textualist argument in favor of the LGBTQ plaintiffs. But Gorsuch also suggested that this point might not decide the case, because of a competing concern about the appropriate role of courts within the legal system. To decide that existing federal law prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, Gorsuch mused, might cause significant social disruption. Perhaps, he said, American society is not ready for, or does not want, a legal rule protecting LGBTQ persons against workplace discrimination. And like most conservative-leaning federal judges—indeed, like most federal judges regardless of politics—Gorsuch takes the view that major social change should not come from court rulings but rather from democratically elected legislatures. Indeed, a big part of the point of textualism for someone like Gorsuch is that it prevents courts from substituting their own policy intuitions for those of legislatures.
How much social disruption would actually result from a ruling for the plaintiffs is of course a matter of guesswork: Counsel for the plaintiffs argued that it might not be so disruptive. But to a strict textualist, the degree of potential social disruption shouldn’t matter. If courts shouldn’t be in the business of making judgments about social policy, and instead should just apply statutes as written, then societal outcomes should be no reason to hesitate to do what the text of the statute says. It might feel like a ruling for the plaintiffs would constitute judge-ordered social change, but from a textualist viewpoint, ruling for the plaintiffs wouldn’t expand antidiscrimination law. It would just enforce the law that already exists.
That’s not to say that social disruption—were it to occur—wouldn’t be a problem. But a key tenet of statutory textualism is the idea that if statutes are problematic, the solution is not for courts to tinker with them. Courts must enforce laws as they are, warts and all, and leave any needed repair work to Congress. In the present case, that means that if Congress doesn’t think that Title VII should prevent discrimination against LGBTQ persons, Congress could add clarifying language to the statute. A textualist with faith in this process should have no problem enforcing the statute as written and leaving the rest up to Congress.
Like most justices, though, Gorsuch is a sophisticated observer of congressional behavior. He knows that in reality the legislative process is full of veto opportunities even when it isn’t completely gridlocked. Getting anything through Congress is difficult, and imagining that Congress will respond to every statutory interpretation it doesn’t like by passing appropriate statutory amendments is more than a little naïve. In this case, Gorsuch knows that Congress is unlikely to respond to a literal construction of Title VII by affirmatively authorizing discrimination against LGBTQ persons. There probably isn’t a sufficient majority in Congress today to pass legislation specifically prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ persons, but there probably isn’t a sufficient majority for passing a law specifically denying that protection, either. So whichever way the Supreme Court decides is likely to be how the law remains for some period of time.
That’s why the possibility of social disruption concerns Gorsuch: If he believed a legislative fix were a realistic possibility, he could just follow the text of the statute and let Congress do whatever cleanup work it thought was needed. But Gorsuch is entirely correct to doubt that any legislative fix would be forthcoming.
If Gorsuch writes an opinion in this case that suggests (even implicitly) that he does not trust the possibility of a legislative fix, he will have done more than give his critics grounds to say that he abandoned his textualist principles when he didn’t like the results. He will also be suggesting that, when push comes to shove, he knows that one of the premises of hard-core statutory textualism—that fixing statutes is the job of the legislature—is not in practice workable. That is not a signal that a Supreme Court justice who aspires to be his generation’s leading hard-edged textualist ought to want to send. The simplest way to avoid sending that signal, of course, is to apply the statute literally—that is, to rule that Title VII covers discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. That would look like evidence that Gorsuch is seriously committed to his textualist approach, regardless of his views about the policy wisdom to which it leads in any given case.
This article was originally published at Politico on October 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Richard Primus is the Theodore J. St. Antoine Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School and a former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Follow him on Twitter @Richard_Primus.