Unleashed and Unbound: Living Textualism in Bostock V. Clayton County
- Author(s): Nelson Lund
- Posted: 7-2020
- Legal Studies #: LS 20-15
- Availability: Full text (most recent) on SSRN
In Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia the Supreme Court held that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits—and has always prohibited—discrimination by employers on the basis of homosexuality or of what the Court called transgender status. How so? The statute forbids employers to intentionally discriminate against any individual “because of such individual’s . . . sex.” The Court asserted that discrimination because of homosexuality or transgenderism violates the unambiguous text of the statute.
This result in this case decision would not have been much of surprise in the period during which Justice Anthony Kennedy held the controlling vote on issues dealing with sex, and especially with homosexuality. But the 6-3 majority opinion in Bostock was written by Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts. The majority opinion has virtually no policy analysis or political rhetoric, and it lacks the kind of inflated pseudo-philosophic pontification that Kennedy favored. Instead, the Bostock opinion presents itself as nothing more than a straightforward application of the legally binding text of the statute. Justice Gorsuch even goes out of his way to cast himself as the legitimate intellectual successor to the man whom he literally succeeded: the high priest of statutory textualism, Justice Antonin Scalia.
Leaving others to speculate about judicial motives, I propose that Bostock is an extension of a theory commonly called “living originalism.” During the last decade, this approach to constitutional interpretation has been gaining steam in the legal academy. Bostock has now effectively extended that approach beyond the academy, beyond the field of constitutional interpretation, and even beyond the limits recognized by its academic adherents.
Bostock is a demonstrably outlandish judicial performance. Outlandish though it is, Bostock might be used by the Court to correct one of its most egregiously mistaken lines of case law. Although Title VII unambiguously forbids employers to discriminate on the basis of race or sex, the Court has upheld quotas and preferences explicitly based on the race or sex of people in favored groups. In 1991, Congress amended Title VII by adding a new provision whose text unambiguously overruled the decisions that upheld these preferences. Even without using the peculiar new form of textualism deployed in Bostock, the Supreme Court should have recognized that the 1991 amendment deprived these precedents of any binding force they may once have had. The Court has not done so, but Bostock now imperatively requires the Court to declare that Title VII forbids, and has always forbidden, these illegal employment practices.