The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal filed by Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen that sought to overturn a state law banning transition-related health care for transgender people in prison.
LGBT legal advocates celebrated the victory, calling the Wisconsin law the nation’s most “draconian” anti-transgender measure.
“We still have much work in front of us, but today’s victory is just one more step along the road toward a more equitable future for transgender health care,” said M. Dru Levasseur, Lambda Legal transgender rights attorney, in a statement.
The High Court’s action marks the end of a seven-year legal battle over a 2005 law that barred prison doctors from providing hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery to transgender prisoners in state custody.
The law, dubbed the “Inmate Sex-Change Prevention Act,” was struck down after Lambda Legal, the ACLU and the ACLU of Wisconsin challenged it in a lawsuit. The plaintiffs in the case were transgender inmates who said the law caused them severe physical and psychological harm by halting treatment that deemed medically necessary by physicians.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin ruled in Fields v. Smith that the law was unconstitutional, violating both the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment and the Equal Protection Clause.
Although the ruling did not make transition-related care available to all incarcerated transgender people, it was significant in that it says physicians and not legislators have the authority to determine medical care for transgender inmates, according to Lambda Legal.
Despite the ruling, Van Hollen continued to appeal the ruling, at an undisclosed cost to the state. In 2010, he took the case to the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. That court issued a unanimous ruling that said, “Refusing to provide effective treatment for a serious medical condition serves no valid penological purpose and amounts to torture.”
Still, the attorney general appealed to the Supreme Court, which rejected the case on March 26.
“Access to discrimination-free health care is a constant challenge for transgender people, and people in prison are particularly vulnerable to limited care,” said Levasseur. “Legislators, politicians and policy makers should not be in the business of making medical decisions. We all lose when politicians get to decide what course of treatment our doctors prescribe for us.”
The recent development in Field v. Smith follows success in a case filed by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. In order to settle that case, the Federal Bureau of Prisons changed its policy for treatment of transgender inmates. The new policy gives federal prisoners access to an evaluation by a doctor and treatment in accordance with the standards of care issued by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.
Loree Cook Daniels of FORGE, a Milwaukee-based organization that provides support and advocacy for transgenders, said recent developments illustrate the progress that’s been made in terms of understanding transgender issues. She said that in addition to the legal rulings, many of the nation’s Fortune 500 companies now offer insurance that covers transition-related surgery.
“We’re beginning to see a medical consensus that medical treatment is required for transgender people, and I think that’s a very important move,” Daniels said. “Treatment is becoming far more accepted as medically necessary.”