Access to Justice

Ortiz v. Foxx

In Ortiz v. Foxx, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit is considering whether state court judges who administer and enforce Illinois’s name-change statute are subject to suit by a group of transgender plaintiffs alleging that the statute violates their constitutional rights.

Case Summary

Illinois’s stringent statute governing the process for legally changing one’s name prohibits people with certain criminal convictions from changing their names for either ten years or permanently. As a result, the plaintiffs in this case—a group of transgender individuals—are presently or permanently barred from changing their names to conform with their gender identities. Invoking 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”), a statute that authorizes lawsuits against state and local officials for deprivations of federal rights, the group filed suit in federal district court, alleging that the name-change statute violates their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief against several Illinois state officials, including state judges who are responsible for administering and enforcing the statute.

The state judges moved to dismiss the suit, and the district court granted their motion. The court held, among other things, that Section 1983 does not permit actions against the judges and that the judges are immune from suit under the doctrine of state sovereign immunity. The plaintiffs appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, where CAC filed an amicus brief urging reversal of the district court’s decision.

Our brief focuses on why the principles of judicial immunity and sovereign immunity do not present a barrier to relief in this case.

First, our brief explains that Section 1983 was enacted to create a remedy for violations of constitutional rights by all state officials, including judicial officers. As a part of an array of civil rights laws passed during the Reconstruction era, Section 1983 was enacted to combat widespread discrimination against Black Americans in the South, including by southern judicial systems. In order to secure the supremacy of federal law, Congress broadly authorized suits against “every person” who, acting on behalf of the state, deprives another person of “any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution.” As our brief explains, Section 1983’s proponents and detractors all understood that it would empower federal courts to enjoin state officers—including judges—who administer and enforce state laws that contravene the federal Constitution.

Second, our brief explains that state sovereign immunity does not bar the plaintiffs in this case from seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the state judges. We lay out the history and principles of federal supremacy undergirding what is known as the Ex parte Young doctrine, which holds that state officials who act in derogation of the federal Constitution are not protected by state sovereign immunity in suits for prospective injunctive relief. The Ex parte Young exception to sovereign immunity applies to all state officers who enforce unconstitutional state laws, including judicial officers.

Finally, our brief ties these historical principles and doctrines back to the Illinois name-change statute.  We explain that though there are certain discrete limits on suits against state judges under Section 1983 and Ex parte Young, those limits apply only when the judges act in a traditional judicial capacity. In this case, state judges serve as judges in name only when they administer the Illinois name-change statute, acting in a ministerial role by simply applying a checklist of factors to determine whether to permit a name-change petition to proceed, and in an enforcement capacity when they reject such applications in otherwise non-adversarial proceedings. Therefore, because the judges’ application of the statute is non-judicial and constitutes a direct barrier to the plaintiffs’ ability to change their names in accordance with their federal constitutional rights, the state judges can be sued.

Case Timeline

More from Access to Justice