Colorado’s Justice Neil Gorsuch authors landmark LGBT decision

President Donald Trump has pointed to his appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court as his first great accomplishment in office, but the conservative Colorado native threw Trump a curveball Monday by authoring a landmark pro-LGBT rights decision.

Gorsuch wrote the 6-3 ruling, which protects people from workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The decision interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a key provision that prohibits job discrimination because of sex, to apply to such situations.

“We agree that homosexuality and transgender status are distinct concepts from sex,” Gorsuch wrote. “But, as we’ve seen, discrimination based on homosexuality or transgender status necessarily entails discrimination based on sex.”

The Trump administration had reversed the stance of Democratic President Barack Obama, whose administration supported gay and transgender workers’ discrimination claims based on Title VII.

Another conservative justice, Chief Justice John Roberts, joined Gorsuch’s majority opinion with the court’s four more liberal members. Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh dissented.

The decision drew quick praise from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who is gay. The Democrat called the ruling “a significant step on the road to equality.”

“We must continue to create a community where people feel safe, and loved, and valued, and respected,” Polis said in a statement. “No person should be afraid to show the world who they are — and no LGBTQ person should risk losing their job by doing so.”

While the conservative justice’s role was surprising to some, it wasn’t to Colorado LGBT rights activist Sheena Kadi.

She pointed to Gorsuch’s comments last fall during oral arguments in the cases, in which he expressed sympathy for the workers affected and their legal position. But he also was concerned about the “massive social upheaval” that might result from a ruling in their favor.

To assuage that concern, One Colorado, where Kadi was deputy director until March, worked with a coalition of advocacy groups led by Freedom for All Americans. They aimed to publicly show examples of gay and transgender people integrating successfully into workplaces. They did so in court briefs, op-eds and news stories, recruiting potential story subjects to step forward.

Did those accounts reach their intended audience of one? It’s impossible to tell.

But Kadi said she sensed early on, based on Gorsuch’s legal and personal background in Colorado, that he was a potential vote in favor. The evidence included his attendance of an “open and affirming” Episcopal church when his family lived outside of Boulder.

“There’s very much this individualist streak that is woven throughout Gorsuch’s life,” she said. “He has this conviction that the law should be understandable to everyone, and it cannot only favor the wealthy and well-educated. He looks to have real conversations with people to sort of put himself in their shoes, because he recognizes that everyone has this different lived experience.”

Monday’s decision leaves loose ends for gay and transgender rights in other parts of life, but Kadi reveled in the victory.

“Today’s decision is saying that no one has to live in fear of being fired or denied a job or denied a promotion because of who they are or who they love,” she said. “It’s that simple.”

Gorsuch succeeded the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court in 2017.

In one of Monday’s dissenting opinions, Alito portrayed the decision as an affront to Scalia’s guiding judicial philosophy, which aims to put the focus on the meaning of a law rather than the intent behind it or other factors.

“The Court attempts to pass off its decision as the inevitable product of the textualist school of statutory interpretation championed by our late colleague Justice Scalia, but no one should be fooled,” Alito wrote. “The Court’s opinion is like a pirate ship. It sails under a textualist flag, but what it actually represents is a theory of statutory interpretation that Justice Scalia excoriated — the theory that courts should ‘uphold’ old statutes so that they better reflect the current values of society.”

Prior to his appointment, Gorsuch spent a decade as a judge on the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Trump announced his nomination less than two weeks into his presidency in late January 2017, crediting Gorsuch for “outstanding legal skill, a brilliant legal mind and discipline.”

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