#NotDoneYet - Fair Courts

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December 16, 2014

Lambda Legal scored many amazing victories this year in the fight for the rights of LGBT people and people with HIV. But we’re not done yet. This series showcases some of our proudest accomplishments in 2014, and explores some of the work that we still need to do to achieve full equality for the LGBT and HIV communities.

Here are highlights of Lambda Legal's Fair Courts work in 2014 and goals for 2015.

SmithKline Beecham Corp. v. Abbott Laboratories: This case was not only a victory for fair courts but also paves the way to further victories for lawsuits in the Ninth Circuit challenging sexual orientation discrimination. Lambda Legal filed an amicus brief after a potential juror was rejected because he was gay. The Ninth Circuit ruled that the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibits excluding individuals from juries based on their sexual orientation. In arriving at this decision, the court also determined that discriminatory classifications based upon sexual orientation must be given heightened scrutiny by the courts. Relying on the logic of the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling in U.S. v. Windsor that struck down the core section of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the Ninth Circuit determined that classifications based upon sexual orientation must at least meet the same standard of review as those based upon sex: they should be presumed to be unconstitutional. When our Nevada marriage case came before the Ninth Circuit later that year, we were also victorious because the state of Nevada could not defend its supposed interest in barring same-sex couples from marriage under SmithKline’s heightened standard.

Encouraging Diversity on the Bench:  Lambda Legal urged Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla to take certain considerations into account when nominating a new justice to the Puerto Rico Supreme Court or making any other judicial nominations — namely, that the judicial philosophy of his nominees includes a commitment to rule fairly and impartially in cases involving LGBT and HIV-positive litigants, and that he seeks thoughtful jurists reflecting Puerto Rico’s rich diversity. After we sent the letter, the Governor nominated, and the Senate confirmed, Puerto Rico’s first openly lesbian Supreme Court Justice, Maite Oronoz Rodríguez.

The Role of Courts in Upholding Civil Rights and the Constitution: Through its Fair Courts Project, Lambda Legal aggressively responds to the mischaracterization of judges who strike down discriminatory state laws as being “activist,” and challenge rhetoric about “unelected judges” that follows controversial rulings. When Texas Senator Ted Cruz issued a statement attacking our marriage victory in the 7th Circuit as an example of “judicial activism at its worst” and vowing to defend “traditional marriage” by introducing a federal constitutional amendment, we called out his statement as nothing more than a misguided Texas-sized rant. And when the Arkansas Legislative Counsel condemned a state court judge for striking down the state’s discriminatory marriage ban, we took them to task for this despicable antigay attack on our courts.

But we’re not done yet…

Securing Access to Justice: Lambda Legal recently completed a national survey to assess whether courts and other government institutions are properly protecting and serving LGBT people and people living with HIV. Results from Lambda Legal’s survey confirm that LGBT people and people living with HIV face overt discrimination from judges, legal practitioners and court staff, as well as more subtle discriminatory practices that have become prevalent in the judicial system. The Fair Courts Project fights to eliminate bias and discrimination in court by providing educational trainings for judges, attorneys and court staff and by advocating for fair treatment for LGBT and HIV-affected people.

Fighting Corrupt Judicial Elections A fair and impartial judiciary is one of the fundamental pillars of our democracy. Unfortunately, the judiciary increasingly faces powerful, organized threats to its independence. Popular election or re-election of state judges has been abused by far-right interest groups  to intimidate judges or remove them, politicize elections and undermine the integrity of our justice system. Lambda Legal will continue to advocate for fair and impartial courts, equality and a vibrant democracy.

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