Supreme Court civil rights litigator talks upcoming LGBTQ workers' rights cases

Monday, October 7, 2019 - 5:48pm

Samuel Bagenstos, Supreme Court civil rights litigator and University of Michigan law professor, shares insight into the rights of LGBTQ+ workers in America at a discussion in Weill Hall Monday afternoon.

Samuel Bagenstos, Supreme Court civil rights litigator and University of Michigan law professor, shares insight into the rights of LGBTQ+ workers in America at a discussion in Weill Hall Monday afternoon. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

The Domestic Policy Corps and Out in Public, two student organizations within the Ford School of Public Policy, hosted Samuel Bagenstos, Supreme Court civil rights litigator and University of Michigan law professor, on Monday afternoon. About 30 students attended the event to hear the discussion of three pending Supreme Court cases centered around LGBTQ+ workers’ rights in America. 

The Department of Justice appointed Bagenstos, where he served as the principal deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights from 2009 until 2011. He worked as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and has published numerous articles in both academic and non-academic publications. Currently, he is a University of Michigan Law School professor specializing in civil rights and constitutional litigation. He remains an appellate and civil rights litigator, having argued four cases in front of the Supreme Court. 

During the event, Bagenstos talked about the LGBTQ+ workers’ rights cases that will be heard in front of the Supreme Court on Tuesday. He also gave a brief history of LGBTQ+ workers’ rights in America and discussed what arguments can be expected to be heard at the hearings.

The three cases being presented to the Supreme Court tomorrow all involve people who were fired from their jobs after their employers learned of their sexualities: a case where a skydiving instructor told a client he was gay; a case where a social worker in Georgia joined a gay softball league; and lastly a case in Michigan about a transgender woman who wrote to her employer about her transition.

“Because there is such widespread discirmination against gay, lesbian and transgender individuals in the workplaces… in recent years a number of individuals, lawyers and activists have sought to use pre-existing sex discrimination laws to challenge this kind of discrimination,” Bagenstos said. 

Bagenstos then gave a brief history of the pre-existing sex discrimination law, Title VII within the 1964 Civil Rights Act, that prohibits racial discimination in employment and also prohibits sex discrimination in employment.

“Title VII wasn’t something that (government officials) were going to take very seriously in enforcing,” Bagenstos said.  “It took a lot of work by feminists acitivists and litigators over the next several years to get the government to take that seriously and eventually by the late ‘60s, early ‘70s the EOC and the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts began to take sex discrimination really seriously and you see all sorts of major changes in sex discrimination litigation.”

After giving this brief history, Bagenstos opened the room up to questions regarding Tuesday’s cases. One audience member asked about the impact the outcomes of Tuesday’s case will have on the LGBTQ+ community. 

“What’s at stake here is something that is dramatic in terms of its effect on individuals in terms of saying, look, you have to not have the sexual orientation you have or you have to not have the gender identity you have if you want to keep your job,” Bagenstos said. “There’s a lot at stake in these court cases.” 

Public Policy graduate student Kate Bell, an organizer of the event, spoke to The Daily about the relevance of this policy talk in light of the pending LGBTQ+ cases.

“As mentioned, Michigan is one of the states that currently does not offer protections in the workplace for LGBT individuals and so this is something that will directly affect our members who choose to remain in this state,” Bell stated. 

Another Public Policy graduate student, Monika Anderson, commented on how this policy talk broadened her understanding of the Supreme Court’s role in decisions on certain issues. 

“The politics of political appointees to the court can really shape what direction we take issues in this country,” Anderson said. “Despite what the general public of the country may think, or polling numbers may show, there's a lot of power that Supreme Court holds, that might not necessarily always match what the country is.”

Kate Bell emphasized why this talk and other policy talks organized by Out in Public are so essential to students here at the University. 

“Especially at the Ford School, unless you're specifically taking a class on labor, labor policy, you’re unlikely to hear things like this,” Bell said. “One of the main goals for Out in Public specifically was to have a space for queer identifying folks within our program to come and talk about things, but also a place to discuss policies that will directly impact our lives.”