What’s at Stake at the Supreme Court for People with Disabilities? The Arc Reviews Judge Gorsuch’s Record on Disability Rights

By: Shira Wakschlag, Director of Legal Advocacy & Associate General Counsel

On January 31, 2017, President Donald Trump nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee is set for March 20. A close review of Judge Gorsuch’s opinions pertaining to people with disabilities reveals a jurist with an exceptionally narrow view of the protections offered by federal disability rights laws—an approach that has led to deeply troubling results for members of The Arc in the Tenth Circuit’s jurisdiction. While Judge Gorsuch is a staunch proponent of the inherent dignity of all human beings, including those with disabilities, during his tenure on the Tenth Circuit he has not been a champion for robust enforcement of disability rights laws that are so crucial to enabling individuals with disabilities to lead dignified lives in the community, free from discrimination.

In cases involving the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Rehabilitation Act, and the Fair Housing Act in which Judge Gorsuch authored the majority or concurring opinion, he almost always ruled against the plaintiff with a disability. Perhaps the most common thread uniting these opinions is Judge Gorsuch’s strictly textualist approach to interpreting laws. This approach leads him to frequently disregard legislative history and Congressional intent in favor of deciphering the “objective” meaning of the law’s text in a vacuum, ultimately resulting in very narrow interpretations of the protections guaranteed by federal disability rights laws.

For example, in Hwang v. Kansas State University (2014), the plaintiff, a professor who had been employed by the university for 15 years, requested to extend her 6-month medical leave for a finite period. Due to a cancer diagnosis and weakened immune system, she sought to avoid a flu epidemic that arose on campus. When her employer refused to make an exception to its 6-month leave policy, the plaintiff sued, alleging disability discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act. Judge Gorsuch found for the defendant employer on the grounds that, as a matter of law, a leave of more than 6 months was not a reasonable accommodation. In this opinion, Judge Gorsuch demonstrated a troubling view of disability accommodations in the workplace, implying that the plaintiff employee was seeking not to work and should therefore be funneled into the public benefits system rather than the workplace:

Ms. Hwang’s is a…problem other forms of social security aim to address. The Rehabilitation Act seeks to prevent employers from callously denying reasonable accommodations that permit otherwise qualified disabled persons to work—not to turn employers into safety net providers for those who cannot work.

Remarkably, Judge Gorsuch affirmed dismissal of the case prior to fact discovery, thereby precluding the plaintiff from the ability to present evidence. He also failed to engage in the individualized inquiry required in such cases, in conflict with U.S. Supreme Court precedent, guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and four other circuit courts (in addition to a prior conflicting decision within the Tenth Circuit). An amicus brief on behalf of several disability rights advocacy groups requesting a rehearing referred to the decision as “unprecedented.”

Another standout case is Thompson R2-JSchool District v. Luke P. (2008), in which Judge Gorsuch articulated an extraordinarily low standard for educational benefit that is now under review before the U.S. Supreme Court in another case arising from the Tenth Circuit, Endrew F. v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist. Re-1. In Luke P., the hearing officer, administrative law judge, and the district court found for the student, noting that the district had failed to provide a free appropriate public education as demonstrated by the student’s inability to generalize the skills he learned at school to settings outside of school. These decisions were based on the notion that this level of minimal progress towards IEP goals was not enough to constitute a meaningful educational benefit under the IDEA. Judge Gorsuch disagreed:

[A] school district is not required to provide every service that would benefit a student if it has found a formula that can reasonably be expected to generate some progress on that student’s IEP goals…Rather, [the IDEA] much more modestly calls for the creation of individualized programs reasonably calculated to enable the student to make some progress towards the goals within that program.

In finding for the school district, Judge Gorsuch rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the purpose of the IDEA, as stated clearly by Congress, was to help students with disabilities achieve more meaningful progress that led to a greater possibility of independent living. Despite legislative history to the contrary, Judge Gorsuch noted that independence was not an outcome-oriented guarantee of the law. In November, along with a large coalition of disability advocates, The Arc submitted an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging this same low standard employed by the Tenth Circuit in the Endrew F. case. In another IDEA case, A.F. v. Espanola Public Schools (2015), where Judge Gorsuch found for the school district, the dissenting judge noted that the outcome “was clearly not the intent of Congress and…harms the interest of the children that IDEA was intended to protect.”

Judge Gorsuch has also demonstrated a narrow view of class actions, a crucial tool for individuals with disabilities to enforce their rights in court. For example, in Shook v. Board of County Commissioners of County of El Pas(2008), Judge Gorsuch affirmed the denial of class certification to a group of plaintiffs alleging that jail conditions for prisoners with psychiatric disabilities violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual treatment. In so finding, Judge Gorsuch reasoned that it would be too difficult to craft appropriate systemic relief for the class as a whole given the variety of psychiatric disabilities represented in the class.

These decisions are more than just abstract discussions of legal theories – they have real-life consequences for The Arc’s constituents. In particular, Judge Gorsuch’s effectively pro-school district stance has been devastating for students with disabilities and special education advocates in the Tenth Circuit. Advocates from AdvocacyDenver (a chapter of The Arc), noted that the Luke P. decision was “seismic” for students with disabilities in Colorado, leading school districts to believe that they had a champion in the Tenth Circuit. This dramatically changed their approach to IEP disputes and empowered them to act to the detriment of students with disabilities under the belief that they would almost always prevail in court. Overall, advocates from the chapter noted that the Tenth Circuit offers some of the weakest protections for students with disabilities and their families in the country and that Judge Gorsuch’s decisions on the IDEA have had deeply problematic results for special education advocates and students with disabilities in Colorado.

On the other hand, Judge Gorsuch, like The Arc, is a staunch opponent of physician-assisted suicide. While he has not yet addressed this issue in court, Judge Gorsuch authored a 2006 book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, in which he notes that: “[a]ll human beings are intrinsically valuable…any line we might draw between human beings for purposes of determining who must live and who may die ultimately seems to devolve into an arbitrary exercise of picking out which particular instrumental capacities one especially likes.” Among other reasons for his opposition, Judge Gorsuch links the practice to the history of societal devaluation of people with disabilities embodied by the eugenics movement, flagging the inherent risk for abuse the system poses for people with disabilities.

Judge Gorsuch’s views on this subject and his recognition of the inherent dignity of people with disabilities reflect an important area of common ground. The question is whether his jurisprudence will ever link this belief in inherent dignity with a robust protection of rights that is so crucial to the ability of people with disabilities to learn, work, and lead dignified lives in the community among their peers. During his tenure on the Tenth Circuit, the answer to this question has largely been no.

More information about Judge Gorsuch’s majority and concurring opinions relating to disability rights can be found here.