The Supreme Court this morning declined to make a definitive ruling on whether transgender students in public schools have a right to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity. The decision comes less than two weeks after the Trump Administration rescinded Department of Education guidance on the matter. Instead, the Court vacated a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, which had used Obama-era guidance to find in favor of a student identifying as male requesting access to male bathrooms.
So what does the ruling mean for the student, and for future transgender rights cases?
There's not much to look at in the Supreme Court's ruling, just 47 words overturning the Fourth Circuit's previous decision, and directing it to reconsider the case in light of recently rescinded guidance:
The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit for further consideration in light of the guidance document issued by the Department of Education and Department of Justice on February 22, 2017, on March 6, 2017.
The Fourth Circuit had relied heavily on prior guidance from the Department of Education ordering public schools that receive federal funding to "generally treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity." This meant providing access to bathrooms consistent with that gender identity. But the Trump administration rescinded that guidance, removing much of the Fourth Circuit's reasoning.
A more definitive ruling from the Supreme Court could have set a national standard for the treatment of transgender students in public schools. Indeed, both sides in the case urged the Court to ignore the Trump administration's rescission and provide exactly that. By demurring on the essential issue, the Supreme Court has tasked lower courts with tackling the question of whether Title IX or the Equal Protection Clause guarantees transgender students the right to be treated in accordance with their gender identity.
Part of the interest in this delay might be down to the Court's current makeup -- perhaps the justices couldn't or didn't want to come to such an important decision with just eight of them on the bench. Part of it may be the Court's desire to avoid answering questions lower courts haven't yet fully addressed.
What it means in real terms is that lower courts and school districts could come to very different decisions regarding transgender student rights in the meantime. Meanwhile, in the time it takes for those cases to re-percolate to the Supreme Court, many students could face a different set of rules based solely on where they happen to live, and whether a court with jurisdiction has addressed the issue.