As of this writing, Donald Trump has successfully appointed more than 180 judges to the federal bench. That’s a record number, given the amount of time he has been in office. These judges will wield power for the rest of their natural lives, meaning the damage Trump does during his relatively short time bloviating from the Oval Office will achieve an air of permanence through his judges’ actions over the next generation.
Most of the damage Trump judges do will be big and obvious. No serious climate change legislation will survive them; all manner of voter suppression will be allowed by them. The rights of women, members of the LGBTQ community, and other minorities will be curtailed by courts stacked with Trump’s overwhelmingly white, male, Christian jurists. Unless you look, pray, and have sex exactly the way they want you to, Trump judges are going to give you a very hard time in court.
But some of the damage Trump judges do will be less visible. It will be personal, and the decisions will apply only to a relatively small number of Americans, individuals trying to live their lives with dignity. Trump judges will deny the most minor legal victories to people from underrepresented and vulnerable communities—because they can. As the headline to an influential article by The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer put it, “The Cruelty Is the Point.”
One of those unnecessarily cruel and entirely bigoted opinions was issued by Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan last month. Before his appointment by Trump, Duncan spent several years litigating anti-LGBTQ cases as general counsel for a right-wing “Christian” group called the Becket Fund. We warned Nation readers about Duncan in July, when we highlighted seven of Trump’s most dangerous appointments to the court. Duncan’s anti-LGBTQ bias is a matter of record, yet the Senate gave him a lifetime appointment anyway.
The latest victim of that bias is Kathrine Nicole Jett, a transgender woman who is in federal prison. She asked that her name be changed in her prison records, including court documents, from her pretransition name; she also asked that the court, in its proceedings adjudicating whether she was allowed to change her name, refer to her as “her.”
Writing for a three-judge panel on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Duncan said no. He was joined by Judge Jerry Smith, a Ronald Reagan appointee who is still alive, which should serve as a reminder of just how long these Trump judges will wield power. Judge James Dennis, a Bill Clinton appointee, dissented.
That this opinion was published at all represents a high level of judicial antipathy toward Jett and the transgender community. She is a pro se plaintiff (meaning she’s not represented by a lawyer) filing from prison. Her case raises no grave constitutional concerns or questions of precedent. In fact, there isn’t a lot of disagreement on the law here: All three judges agreed that, as a general principle, judges can call people whatever they want. Even if the panel disagreed with Jett, it could have simply dismissed the case without an opinion or issued an unpublished ruling. There was no reason to haul this case out in the open and insult not just Jett but the entire transgender community with this opinion.
That is, unless insulting the transgender community was Duncan’s goal from the beginning. After all, this is the lawyer who served as lead counsel in the case opposing Gavin Grimm, a transgender teen who sued a school board in Virginia to use the bathroom of his choice. Duncan’s 10-page opinion in the Jett case is a disgusting highlight reel of anti-trans bigotry and pettiness.