Divided 7th Circuit upholds dismissal of transgender man’s name-change suit

A Mexican native with asylum in the United States cannot continue with his suit against various Indiana officials challenging the citizenship requirement in Indiana’s name-change statute after a divided panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found he lacked standing to bring his case.  

John Doe, a biological woman, came to Indiana in 1990 and has lived here ever since, most of that time publicly identifying himself as Jane Doe, a woman. But in 2012, Doe told his family that he is transgender and began to live openly as a man under the name John.

Doe was granted asylum in the U.S. in 2015 after alleging that he would face persecution in Mexico as a transgender woman. All of Doe’s official U.S. documents, including his Indiana I.D. and his immigration papers, denote him as male, yet his name is still listed as “Jane.” That discrepancy has been a constant source of trouble for Doe, he claims, and has created heightened symptoms of anxiety and gender dysphoria.

Thus, in 2013, Doe began the process of legally changing his name, but hit an immediate snag when he learned he had to provide proof of his U.S. citizenship. The citizenship requirement is found in Indiana Code section 34-28-2-2.5, enacted in 2010 through House Enrolled Act 1047.

Though he has legal asylum, Doe told the Indiana Lawyer in 2016 that he is still a few years away from obtaining full citizenship. Rather than continuing to legally live as Jane until that time, Doe filed suit against the state, alleging the citizenship requirement violated his free speech, equal protection and due process rights.

Doe found support for his case in Indianapolis attorney Barbara Baird and in the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Transgender Law Center, two national legal organizations. However, the Indiana Southern District Court dismissed Doe’s suit nearly one year ago for lack of standing.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision Friday, with Judge Michael Kane addressing standing as it related to each of the four defendants named in their official capacities – Gov. Eric Holcomb, Attorney General Curtis Hill, Mary Willis, executive director of the Indiana Supreme Court Office of Judicial Administration, and Myla Eldridge, Marion County Clerk.

Looking first to the claims against Holcomb – who replaced then-Gov. Mike Pence as a defendant – Kanne wrote Doe’s claims may have been more successful had he sued the governor to enjoin the enforcement of Bureau of Motor Vehicle requirements that prohibit the issuance of an I.D. with a name that is different than the name listed on the applicant’s legal documents. Though he sued Holcomb as head of the BMV, Doe’s complaint sought to enjoin him from enforcing the name-change statute, which the governor is not specifically tasked with enforcing, Kanne said.

Similarly, Hill – who replaced former Attorney General Greg Zoeller as a defendant – has authority only to join prosecutions, not to initiate them to enforce laws like the name-change statute, Kanne wrote. Further, there are no penalties for violating the statute, so there is nothing Hill, in his official capacity, could do to prosecute Doe under the statute, he said.

Doe also sued Lillia Judson, the now-retired head of the Indiana Supreme Court Division of State Court Administration, who has since been replaced by Willis. The Mexican native alleged Willis’ office – now known as the Office of Judicial Administration – “prevent(s) or discourage(s) non-citizens from accessing changes of legal name” by generating a form that requires name-change applicants to provide proof of citizenship. Those forms, however, are not connected to the enforcement of the statute, the circuit court found.

Finally, turning to Eldridge, the circuit court first wrote that as a county official, the clerk is not protected under the 11th Amendment. But though Doe did allege an injury in fact – the denial of a legal name change due to his citizenship status – he failed to prove a causal connection between Eldridge and his injury because she does not have the ability to deny or approve name-change petitions, only to process them.

Thus, the majority joined by Judge Joel Flaum affirmed the dismissal of Doe’s complaint. But in a dissenting opinion, Chief Judge Diane Wood wrote the majority’s opinion overlooks the “significant roles played by the Attorney General, Executive Director, and Clerk in enforcing the name-change statute and preventing Doe from securing official recognition of his identity.”

First addressing Willis and Eldridge, Wood said the court must accept Doe’s assertion that Eldridge’s office regularly rejects non-citizens’ applications for a legal name change based on instructions on the form – generated by Willis’ office – that require proof of citizenship. Further, looking to Hill’s role, Wood noted that both fraud and perjury – for which Doe could be convicted if he lied about his citizenship – are crimes punishable independent of the name-change statute.

Finally, though Wood agreed that Holcomb should be dismissed as a defendant, she also wrote she would allow Doe to amend his complaint to name other executive branch officials – namely, the commissioner of the BMV.

“In the end, I believe that the majority has attached too much importance to the fact that the state courts are the ones charged with the duty of issuing name-change orders,” Wood wrote. “The fact that this responsibility is lodged in the courts does not mean that Doe’s suit is nonjusticiable.”

“The underlying principle Doe is trying to vindicate is an important one, which has a broader application than may be initially apparent,” she continued. “I therefore respectfully dissent.”

The case is John Doe v. Eric Holcomb, et al., 17-1756.

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