Transgender man seeks right to sue over law prohibiting non-citizens from obtaining a change of legal name

(Indianapolis, IN) — A transgender man who is challenging an Indiana state law that bars immigrants from obtaining a change of legal name is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a federal trial court’s decision to dismiss his case, according to a petition for certiorari filed today.

MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) and Transgender Law Center (TLC) filed the petition on behalf of “John Doe”, a 33-year-old Indiana resident who has been forced by the state of Indiana to use his female birth name on identity documents simply because he is not yet a United States citizen.

In March, a split three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the district court’s dismissal of the lawsuit based on standing, raising urgent legal questions about the ability to challenge discriminatory state laws in federal court.

Lawyers for Doe note that “since at least the mid-twentieth century civil rights era” this “kind of  categorical discrimination against a class of persons has been a quintessential part of  federal court jurisdiction.”

“This law puts me in danger every time I have to show I.D.,” said the plaintiff, who has been granted asylum in the U.S. and is now a lawful permanent resident.  “I just want my case to move forward so that someday I can have an I.D. that reflects who I truly am. Without a legal name change, I’m forced to risk harassment, violence, and being outed as transgender on a daily basis.”

Doe was born in Mexico and raised in Indiana, where he moved with his family at a young age. Although born and raised as a girl, he has lived for several years as a man and is recognized as a male on all official U.S. documents and his Indiana state ID. However, he remains unable to change his legal name in Indiana because of the 2010 state law that precludes non-U.S. citizens from petitioning the state for a name change.

”John Doe deserves his day in court to challenge a law that discriminates openly and inexplicably against all non-citizens,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel.  “He has chosen federal court rather than state court, where circuit court judges are elected by the same voters who elected the legislature that enacted and leaves in place the blatant exclusion, to hear his claims; under well-established precedent, his choice should be respected.”

MALDEF and TLC filed the lawsuit, Doe v. Pence, against state and county officials in September 2016 arguing that the state law requiring proof of citizenship to obtain a change of legal name is unconstitutional. The lawsuit named Mike Pence, then the Governor of Indiana, as  lead defendant.. The case is now called Doe v. Holcomb, reflecting the change in Indiana’s governorship since Pence became Vice President of the United States.

“Courts so far have refused to deal with the blatant discrimination written into Indiana law and have instead made procedural rulings that would leave Mr. Doe and thousands of others without a path to fight for their rights in federal court under the U.S. Constitution,” said Flor Bermudez, legal director at Transgender Law Center. “Today, Mr. Doe asks the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case and correct these errors that would let states insulate their discriminatory statutes from meaningful federal judicial review and continue to discriminate so long as they require their judges to do the discriminating for them.”

The federal district court dismissed Doe’s case after holding that he lacks standing because defendants were not responsible for enforcing the discriminatory law, despite the fact that Doe had been turned away from a courthouse when he inquired about changing his name and that statewide name change forms ask for proof of citizenship. The decision was affirmed by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, over a dissent from Chief Judge Diane Wood, on the basis of standing and Eleventh Amendment state immunity.

The suit alleges the citizenship provision of the Indiana law is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause that prohibit discrimination based on alienage. Additionally, it violates the First Amendment by compelling speech from the plaintiff that betrays and falsely communicates the core of who he is, according to the complaint.

Read a copy of the filing here or the original complaint here.