Equal Protection and Transgender Rights

Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/7369441@N08/8594644828

Image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/7369441@N08/8594644828

Throughout the month of May, we have highlighted civil rights law resources from the Law Library's print collection. Titles currently on display include Transgender Persons and the Law, Section 1983 Litigation in a NutshellAmericans With Disabilities Practice and Compliance Manual, and Sexual Orientation and the Law. We have also been celebrating the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. This cornerstone of landmark civil rights legislation has been a source of inspiration for equal justice advocates for nearly 150 years.

The 14th Amendment has been invoked in a great number of historic cases including the trial of Susan B. Anthony (1873), Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Loving v. Virginia (1967), Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), and as recently as yesterday, Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District, a case in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals with important implications for transgender rights.

In Whitaker, a three-judge panel cited the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, arguing that anti-discrimination laws apply to transgender students. They upheld the lower court's injunction, stating that sex discrimination based on gender identity is unconstitutional. This decision, the first ruling of its kind by a court at the federal level, will protect the individual student at the heart of the case and could extend to transgender students as a class. By invoking federal civil rights laws, this ruling has the potential to ensure equality for all transgender people and prohibit discrimination in education, housing, and employment. 




A Look Back at Brown v. Board of Education on the 63rd Anniversary

On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that racial segregation was unconstitutional and that permitting "separate but equal" treatment for black students in public schools was a violation of federal civil rights laws. 

"We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment."

This year's Law Day theme is The 14th Amendment: Transforming American Democracy, so today, on the 63rd anniversary of this historic case, it's appropriate to remember Brown v Board of Education and the impact it's had on shaping the civil rights effort from 1954 to this day.

Looking Back - Shelley v. Kraemer

Law Day artwork courtesy of the American Bar Association

Law Day artwork courtesy of the American Bar Association

On this date in 1948, in its landmark decision in Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948), the highest court in the nation struck down racially restricted covenants placed on real property on the ground that such agreements denied the prospective property owners equal protection of the laws. The agreements in question, executed by a majority of property owners restricted the occupation of said properties on the basis of race. In 1945, petitioners Shelley, unaware of these restrictive covenants, received a warranty deed to a house on Labadie Avenue in St. Louis, Missouri. Respondents, owners whose properties were also subject to the agreement, filed an action in the state court in Missouri asking the court to restrain the Shelleys from taking possession of the property and to divest them of title to the property. The trial court refused to enforce the agreement, finding that the agreement was never finalized because the parties intended it to be effective once all property owners signed it. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Missouri reversed the trial court’s judgment, directing the lower court to grant the relief requested by respondent property owners.

Image of the Shelley House - courtesy of the National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior. Photo by Gerald L. Gilleard.

The Shelleys appealed to the United States Supreme Court, asserting that they were denied equal protection of the laws, deprived of property without due process, and denied the privileges and immunities due the citizens of the United States. The court noted that, in and of themselves, the restrictions could not be considered to be in violation of any of those rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment because there was no action on the part of the state. However, the enforcement of the restrictive covenants by the state courts created the state action necessary to bring this issue squarely under the purview of the Fourteenth Amendment. Thus, because the state court judicially enforced the agreements, the states had effectively denied the Shelleys equal protection of the laws. The Court found it unnecessary to address the other Fourteenth Amendment issues.

The home at the center of the controversy, the Shelley House, was designated as a National Historic Landmark on December 14, 1990 because of its historic and social significance in the civil rights movement. It remains as a symbol of the fight to achieve equality and stands as a reminder that all persons, without restriction by the states or the federal government, have the right to own property. Although the house at 4600 Labadie Avenue in St. Louis is a National Historic Landmark, it is currently privately owned and not open to the public.