Judge William Pryor, widely considered a leading contender for President-elect Donald Trump’s first appointment to the Supreme Court, will soon rule on a landmark LGBT rights case that could have major implications for his career.
Pryor sat on a three-judge panel Thursday to hear oral arguments in Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital. The case asks the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta to declare that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBT individuals from workplace discrimination. The lawsuit was brought by Jameka Evans, a former security guard at Georgia Regional Hospital who claims she was harassed and ultimately fired because she is a lesbian.
“Georgia Regional Hospital targeted Jameka Evans for harassment and eventually forced her out of her job because she is a lesbian who doesn’t fit an employer’s stereotype about who women are—that is sex stereotyping and against the law,” Evans’ attorney said in a statement.
Though a ruling is not expected for several months, the case will force Pryor to take a position on an explosive legal issue right as Trump considers whom to nominate to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia. What’s more, Pryor risks alienating key constituencies no matter which decision he ultimately makes.
Early in Thursday’s argument, Pryor indicated that he feels bound by precedent to rule against Evans. Pryor suggested the court would be forced to defer to a 40-year old precedent in which a federal appeals court concluded that, “discharge for homosexuality is not prohibited” by federal anti-discrimination laws, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. He went on to say that Evans may have to appeal to all 12 judges of the 11th Circuit, suggesting that precedent should only be overturned by the entire court, and not by a three-judge panel.
Pryor surprises court-watchers regularly in similar cases. He joined an opinion written in 2011 by Judge Rosemary Barkett, a liberal lion appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton, which found that discrimination against transgender individuals qualifies as unconstitutional sex-based discrimination. He also recently ruled that a Florida public school cannot interfere with a students right to organize a gay-straight alliance. (RELATED: One Of The Most Conservative Judges In America Just Sided With A Gay-Straight Alliance)
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago recently heard oral arguments in a similar case concerning Kimberly Hively, an adjunct professor at a community college who claims she was precluded from joining the full-time faculty because she is a lesbian. Both Hively and Evans are represented by Lambda Legal, an LGBT-rights law practice. The full 7th Circuit appeared prepared to side with Hively.
In both cases, Lambda Legal argues that discriminating against someone in the workplace because of sexual orientation has always been actionable under the Civil Rights Act. The group points out the law forbids employers from discriminating against someone “because of sex.” Because discrimination against LGBT individuals is rooted in gender norms and stereotypes, they argue discriminating against an LGBT employee has always been actionable under Title VII. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has endorsed this reading of the law.
A ruling from the 11th Circuit is not expected until next year. The other two judges on the panel are Judge Robin Rosenbaum, an Obama-appointee, and District Judge Jose Martinez, a George W. Bush appointee who is filling in on the case.
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