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U.S. Federal Courts

National Black Justice Coalition CEO indicted on conspiracy, fraud charges

The indictment was handed down on June 7 by a federal grand jury with the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida

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Sharon Lettman-Hicks (Photo courtesy National Black Justice Coalition)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Federal prosecutors in Tallahassee, Fla., on Wednesday unsealed a grand jury indictment charging Sharon Lettman-Hicks, the CEO of the D.C.-based LGBTQ+ group National Black Justice Coalition, and former Tallahassee mayor and unsuccessful Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, with conspiracy and multiple counts of fraud.

The indictment was handed down under seal on June 7 by a federal grand jury associated with the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida in Tallahassee before being publicly released in court on Wednesday.  

It states, among other things, that “Andrew Demetric Gillum and Sharon Janet Lettman-Hicks did knowingly and willfully combine, conspire, confederate, and agree together and with other persons to devise a scheme to defraud and to obtain money and property by means of material false and fraudulent pretenses, representations, and promise, and to cause wire communications to be transmitted in interstate and foreign commerce for the purpose of executing such scheme, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1343.”

The indictment says the alleged illegal actions by Gillum, who identifies as bisexual, and Lettman-Hicks took place between 2016 and 2019, including while Gillum served as mayor of Tallahassee through 2018 and when he became the Democratic candidate for governor of Florida in 2018.

Gillum, a Democrat, lost to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in the 2018 race by about 32,000 votes, garnering more support than many political observers had expected.

According to the 26-page indictment, Gillum and Lettman-Hicks became targets of an FBI public corruption investigation in Tallahassee that began in 2015. It says Lettman-Hicks allegedly helped Gillum improperly funnel money solicited from FBI agents posing as real estate developers with the promise of providing something “very significant in return” in Gillum’s role as mayor in exchange for financial support for Gillum’s campaign for governor.

The indictment says much of the money went to Gillum for his personal use through a company Lettman-Hicks operated called P&P Communications. It charges both Gillum and Lettman-Hicks with 19 counts of wire fraud and one count of attempt and conspiracy to commit mail fraud.

The Tallahassee Democrat newspaper reports that both Gillum and Lettman-Hicks pleaded not guilty to the grand jury charges against them at a June 22 court hearing. The newspaper reports that both declined to comment when approached by reporters outside the courtroom. But Gillum and his attorneys a short time later released separate statements saying the allegations against Gillum were political and would be refuted in court.

“Throughout my career I have always stood up for the people of Florida and have spoken truth to power,” Gillum said in his statement. “There’s been a target on my back ever since I was the mayor of Tallahassee,” the statement continues. ‘They found nothing then, and I have full confidence that my legal team will prove my innocence now.”

Florida attorneys Marc Elias and David Oscar Markus, who are representing Gillum, said in a separate statement that prosecutors got the facts wrong. “The evidence in this case is clear and will show that Mr. Gillum is innocent of all charges,” the lawyers said in the statement.

The Tallahassee Democrat has also reported that Lettman-Hicks was qualified last week to run as a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives in District 8, which includes Tallahassee.

Lettman-Hicks, 53, is listed on the National Black Justice Coalition website as the group’s CEO and board chair. Its website says she served as the group’s CEO and executive director from 2009 to 2017, when she stepped down as executive director. It says she is based in Tallahassee. David Johns, the current NBJC executive director, is based in the organization’s headquarters in D.C.

A spokesperson for the group couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.  

On its website, NBJC says it has served since its founding in 2003 as “America’s leading national civil rights organization dedicated to the empowerment of Black, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer+, and same gender loving (LGBTQ+/SGL) people, including people living with HIV/AIDS through coalition building, federal policy change, research, and education.”

Gillum, 42, became the subject of media reports in March of 2020 when police found him in a Miami Beach hotel room too inebriated to talk and with an unconscious male in the room with him who police said had suffered from a drug overdose and who was later identified as a male sex worker.

Police said they found three plastic bags with suspected crystal meth in the room where Gillum and the other man had been staying. Gillum, who was not charged, denied using any drugs and said he had “too much to drink.” A short time later he announced he had entered a rehab program, citing struggles after losing his race for governor. Six months later, in a television interview with his wife beside him, Gillum disclosed he was bisexual.

The indictment against Gillum and Lettman-Hicks can be accessed here.

U.S. Federal Courts

Federal Judge tosses guidance in LGBTQ healthcare discrimination

He ruled the Biden administration wrongly interpreted a provision barring health care providers from discriminating against LGBTQ+ Americans

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The J. Marvin Jones Federal Building and Courthouse, Amarillo, TX (Photo Credit: U.S. Courts/GSA)

AMARILLO – U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ruled Friday the Biden administration had wrongly interpreted a provision of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), colloquially known as Obamacare, as barring health care providers from discriminating against LGBTQ+ Americans.

Kacsmaryk wrote the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County in which it held that “an employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII.”  The High Court’s opinion states that “it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.”

The lawsuit was brought by two doctors represented by the America First Legal Foundation, set up by Stephen Miller, a former Trump White House official. The suit was filed after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a regulation in May 2021 outlying that its interpretation of Section 1557 of the ACA, which states that healthcare providers cannot discriminate on the basis of sex, extends to sexual orientation and gender identity.

Many observers and legal experts have opined that the Bostock decision, while affecting many other laws and expand equality for LGBTQ people, there were shortcomings in the application of the Bostock ruling.

Sharita Gruberg, currently the Vice President for Economic Justice at the National Partnership for Women & Families, wrote in August of 2020 as the Center for American Progress vice president for LGBTQI+ Research and Communications, outlining the shortcomings in Bostock when looking at a practical application for LGBTQ healthcare under Section 1557 of the ACA:

While Section 1557 of the ACA prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability in covered health programs or activities, the statute’s text does not actually include any of these words. Instead, it refers to protected characteristics in other statutes: Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which covers race, color, and national origin; the Age Discrimination Act of 1975; Section 794 of Title 29 of the U.S. Code, which covers disability; and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which covers sex.

As discussed above, since Title VII’s definition of sex informs the definition of sex in Title IX, it is clear that sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination are also prohibited under the ACA. As in the Title IX context, federal courts have consistently affirmed that the prohibition of sex discrimination in Section 1557 of the ACA prohibits gender identity discrimination.

In 2016, the Obama administration promulgated a rule clarifying that Section 1557 prohibited gender identity discrimination and sex stereotyping, which could include sexual orientation as well as discrimination based on pregnancy, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy or recovery, childbirth, or related medical conditions.

This interpretation was quickly enjoined by Reed O’Connor, a conservative activist judge who has since ruled that the ACA as a whole is unconstitutional. Rather than defend the Obama administration’s interpretation of sex discrimination, the Trump administration elected to promulgate a new rule that not only erased the inclusive definition of sex discrimination but also eliminated sexual orientation and gender identity protections from a number of other regulations.

The administration also rolled back language access protections. Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) posted its final rule four days after the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock. The rule was slated to go into effect on August 18; however, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction on August 17 finding that HHS’ position that sexual orientation and gender identity were not covered under Title IX was rejected by the Supreme Court in Bostock. As a result, the administration was blocked from rescinding the 2016 rule’s protections.

 Kacsmaryk, appointed to the federal bench by former President Trump, wrote that Congress, when adopting the law could have included “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” in the text, but “chose not to do so.” He noted that the ACA incorporated barring against discrimination “on the basis of sex” in Title IX- but specifically left out LGBTQ+ people.

Accordingly the judge wrote, the Supreme Court’s 6-3 conclusion that Title VII’s bar against sex discrimination covered LGBTQ workers did not lead to the same result.

“Title IX’s ordinary public meaning remains intact until changed by Congress, or perhaps the Supreme Court,” he wrote.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Military ban on enlistment by HIV+ people faces legal challenge

The DoD removed restrictions on deployment & stopped discharges of servicemembers who are HIV positive provided they are asymptomatic

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Reception day for the West Point's new cadets - The U.S. Military Academy class 2026 (U.S. Army Photography Unit)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Lambda Legal and a coalition of law firms and attorneys filed a lawsuit Thursday in a federal Virginia district court challenging the U.S. military’s prohibition of HIV-positive Americans from enlisting in the U.S. Armed Forces.

The legal challenge was filed on behalf of three individual plaintiffs and the Minority Veterans of America (MVA) in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

The action comes on the heels of the Department of Defense’s updates this summer to its policies concerning HIV positive servicemembers.

On June 7, the agency announced it would not restrict the deployability or ability to commission, nor discharge or separate any servicemembers based solely on their HIV-positive status, provided they are asymptomatic and have a “clinically confirmed undetectable viral load.”

“For years, the military has found it difficult to meet the recruitment and end-strength goals for an all-volunteer force,” Lambda Legal co-counsel Peter Perkowski, who is also the legal and policy director of MVA, said in a press release announcing the lawsuit.

“Given this reality, it is non-sensical for the nation’s largest employer to turn away healthy, fit, and fully capable recruits just because they have HIV,” Perkowski said. “A positive HIV status alone has no effect on a person’s ability to safely serve,” Kara Ingelhart, senior attorney at Lambda Legal, said in the press release. “Because HIV disproportionately impacts LGBTQ+ people and people of color, this discriminatory policy is not only outdated, but is also a serious equity issue that has a significant impact on communities who already face countless systemic barriers to accessing full life in America.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

White House vows to appeal ruling striking down student debt

Ruling comes from conservative Texas court and the administration’s appeal will be heard by the country’s most conservative appellate court

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U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Earle Cabell Federal Building (Photo Credit: U.S. Courts/GSA)

WASHINGTON – White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre released a statement Thursday night vowing to appeal the decision by a conservative federal district court in Texas that struck down the Biden-Harris administration’s student debt relief program.

President Joe Biden and his administration “are determined to help working and middle-class Americans get back on their feet, while our opponents – backed by extreme Republican special interests – sued to block millions of Americans from getting much-needed relief,” Jean-Pierre said in the statement.

Judge Mark T. Pittman, who was appointed by former president Donald Trump to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, ruled that the administration’s program was a usurpation of power that belonged in the hands of Congress.

Sixteen million Americans have already been approved for student debt relief. The Department of Education will hold onto their information, along with that which has been submitted by ten million other borrowers, pending a decision from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appellate court is the country’s most conservative, and therefore is expected to be sympathetic to arguments that the administration’s program is an overreach of its legal authority.

The administration contends that Congress vested it with the authority to provide relief to student borrowers through the HEROES Act, which expands the Executive Branch’s powers during times of national emergency, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Supreme Court has refused to hear challenges to Biden’s relief plan, and six conservative states have sued separately to stop implementation of the administration’s program. So, the ultimate outcome will probably remain unclear for the foreseeable future.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal court rules beauty pageant can bar transwomen

Writing in dissent, 9th Circuit Judge Susan P. Graber, slammed the majority for its “radical departure” from “well-settled” legal rules

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Anita Green, a trans beauty pageant competitor (Instagram/ anitanoellegreen)

PORTLAND, Or.- A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2-1 decision ruled this week that a beauty pageant can bar transgender women competitors. Upholding an earlier ruling from the U. S. District Court of Oregon in the case of Green v. Miss United States of America, LLC, the court found that that requiring the pageant to be inclusive of trans contestants would be a violation of its First Amendment rights to free speech.

Anita Green, a trans woman, who has competed in multiple beauty pageants including Miss Montana and Miss Earth, filed an application to participate in the Miss USA pageant, but was rejected on the basis that the pageant’s rules specified that only “natural born females” can compete.

Green had applied in Oregon and filed the federal suit based on her allegation that the pageant’s rejection was a violation of the Oregon Public Accommodations Act’s (“OPAA”) prohibition against discrimination on the basis of gender identity. In its ruling the U. S. District Court found the pageant’s First Amendment right to free expression and free association eclipsed the OPAA.

In the 58-page opinion, 9th U.S. Circuit Judge Lawrence VanDyke, appointed to the federal bench by former President Trump, compared and contrasted the pageant’s requirement to that of Broadway composer and producer Lin-Manuel Miranda required protocols in casting his musical ‘Hamilton.’  

Law & Crime noted:

The musical utilizes hip-hop music and lyrics to detail the rise and fall of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and has garnered widespread attention from the public and critics alike,” VanDyke wrote and also attributed “some of the musical’s popularity” to “its casting choices, namely the decision to cast the predominately white Founding Fathers with actors of color.”

VanDyke noted that creator Miranda’s casting decision “was widely—though not universally—applauded,” and included a footnote quoting an op-ed written by a University of Michigan student that questioned the messaging behind the choice of actors. Blogger Camille Moore wrote that despite Miranda’s aim to cast the Pulitzer Prize-winning show to reflect “America today,” the casting missed the mark in that in that it failed to acknowledge that even today, powerful figures would be rich, white men.

The judge continued, explaining that Hamilton’s mainly non-white cast makes an important statement about American history that is “integral” to the show’s message.

The ruling also noted “it is commonly understood that beauty pageants are generally designed to express the “ideal vision of American womanhood.” The panel held that the Pageant’s message cannot be divorced from the Pageant’s selection and evaluation of contestants. The Pageant would not be able to communicate “the celebration of biological women” if it were forced to allow Green to participate.

The First Amendment affords the Pageant the ability to voice this message and to enforce its “natural born female” rule.

The judges concluded that forcing the Pageant to accept Green as a participant would fundamentally alter the Pageant’s expressive message in direct violation of the First Amendment. The judge’ also pointed out that contrary to Green’s argument, it does not matter that the Pageant is a for-profit entity that engages in commerce. That alone is not enough to strip the Pageant of its First Amendment rights.

The ruling also noted that the application of the OPAA in this context lacks the compelling state interest. The State of Oregon has offered only “eliminating discrimination against LGBTQ individuals” as a compelling interest, but this broad formulation alone cannot suffice. The courts have a long-standing hesitation to enforce anti-discrimination statutes in the speech context. Application of the anti-discrimination law to the Pageant here would necessarily impact its message. Applying the proper Supreme Court guidance in this case required prohibiting the application of the OPAA to eliminate the Pageant’s “natural born female” rule.

Writing in dissent, 9th Circuit Judge Susan P. Graber, appointed to the Federal bench by former President Bill Clinton slammed the majority for its “radical departure” from “well-settled” legal rules.

Law & Crime reported:

Under the doctrine of “constitutional avoidance,” Garber explained that the court should have first determined whether OPAA even applied to Green’s claim before diving into First Amendment analysis. Graber reprimanded the majority for its “insistence in reaching an unnecessary constitutional issue,” and reminded her fellow judges that constitutional avoidance is, and has long been, a bedrock judicial principle.

Graber then used VanDyke’s proffered examples in a logical assault on the majority’s ruling: given the nature of performances, a solid argument could be made that OPAA does not even apply to beauty pageants. Therefore, VanDyke’s Hamilton analogy does more to undermine the majority’s ruling than to support it.

Graber wrote:

“Choosing actors for a production of Hamilton, making a sequel to an 80s cinema classic, and assembling a troupe of Beyonce’s backup dancers are intensely selective processes that cannot be said to be open to the public as contemplated by the OPAA. It is highly unlikely that the OPAA would apply to the selection of performers for those roles.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal charges of assault & attempted kidnapping in Pelosi case

Paul Pelosi later described to police that he had been asleep when DePape, whom he had never seen before, entered his bedroom

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U.S. Federal Building in San Francisco, California (Photo credit: T. Bayer)

SAN FRANCISCO – The 42-year-old suspect in the break-in and assault of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul, was formally charged Monday with assault and attempted kidnapping in violation of federal law.

Richmond, California resident David Wayne DePape, 42, was arrested on Friday inside the Pelosi residence in Pacific Heights by San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) police officers responding to a 911 call from Paul Pelosi.

Pelosi was admitted to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital for his injuries, the hospital confirmed. Pelosi underwent what officials described as successful surgery to repair a skull fracture and injuries to his right arm and hands after he was seriously wounded in the attack.

The House Speaker arrived in San Francisco late Friday aboard a U.S. Air Force VIP transport jet and published a “Dear colleague” letter this past weekend thanking fellow members of Congress for their support and expressing gratitude for the “quick response” of law enforcement and emergency services personnel. 

U.S. Attorney Stephanie M. Hinds for the Northern District of California, Special Agent in Charge Robert K. Tripp of the FBI San Francisco Field Office, and Chief J. Thomas Manger of the U.S. Capitol Police made the announcement. Hinds’  Special Prosecutions Section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California is prosecuting the case.

According to the complaint, David Wayne DePape, 42, of Richmond, was arrested on Friday inside the Pelosi residence by San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) police officers responding to a 911 call from Paul Pelosi, husband of U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Paul Pelosi later described to police that he had been asleep when DePape, whom he had never seen before, entered his bedroom looking for Nancy Pelosi.

According to the complaint, minutes after the 911 call, two police officers responded to the Pelosi residence where they encountered Paul Pelosi and DePape struggling over a hammer. Officers told the men to drop the hammer, and DePape allegedly gained control of the hammer and swung it, striking Pelosi in the head. Officers immediately restrained DePape, while Pelosi appeared to be unconscious on the ground. As set forth in the complaint, once DePape was restrained, officers secured a roll of tape, white rope, a second hammer, a pair of rubber and cloth gloves, and zip ties from the crime scene, where officers also observed a broken glass door to the back porch.   

DePape is charged with one count of assault of an immediate family member of a United States official with the intent to retaliate against the official on account of the performance of official duties, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. DePape is also charged with one count of attempted kidnapping of a United States official on account of the performance of official duties, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

The FBI San Francisco Field Office, the U.S. Capitol Police, and the San Francisco Police Department are continuing to investigate the case.

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U.S. Federal Courts

2nd Federal Judge dismisses a suit re: Florida ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

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Jennifer and Matt Cousins are the parents of four children: 14-year-old N.C., 12-year-old S.C., 8-year-old M.C. and 6-year-old P.C. Jen and Matt’s 12-year-old, S.C., came out as non-binary. (Photo Credit: Lambda Legal)

ORLANDO – U.S. District Judge Wendy Berger dismissed a challenge to Florida’s notorious ‘Parental Rights in Education law, HB 1557’ that went into effect this past July 1, 2022. The preliminary injunction sought by clients of Lambda Legal, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Southern Legal Counsel (SLC) and outside counsel Baker McKenzie would have prevented school districts from implementing the law while the law is challenged in court. 

“The court’s decision is wrong on the law and disrespectful to LGBTQ+ families and students. HB 1557 suppresses wholesale the speech and identities of LGBTQ+ students and their families,” said Kell Olson, Staff Attorney at Lambda Legal. “It sends a message of shame and stigma that has no place in schools and puts LGBTQ+ students and families at risk. The students and families at the heart of this case have experienced more bullying in the months since the law went into effect than ever before in their lives, but the court dismissed their experiences of bullying as ‘a fact of life.’ The court’s decision defies decades of precedent establishing schools’ constitutional obligations to protect student speech, and to protect students from targeted bullying and harassment based on who they are.” 

This is the second suit brought to block the law’s implementation. U.S. District Court Judge Allen Cothrel Winsor dismissed a lawsuit challenging the law earlier this month on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to challenge the law. 

That suit dismissed by Winsor alleged, in part, that the law violated First Amendment and due-process rights. It reads, “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

“Our plaintiffs, and other LGBTQ+ students and families throughout Florida, have experienced real harms caused by this law, which were not acknowledged by the Court,” said Simone Chriss, Director of Transgender Rights Initiative at Southern Legal Counsel. “This fight is not over – it has just begun. Florida’s LGBTQ+ students and families deserve better, and we will press forward to protect their rights.”

“The court’s order ignores the real harm this unconstitutional law causes to our plaintiffs, and LGBTQ+ students and families across Florida, every day that it remains in effect,” said Scott McCoy, Interim Deputy Legal Director at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The callous disregard towards increased bullying based on gender identity and the removal of anti-bullying guidance shows exactly why we must keep fighting.”

“We very much look forward to continuing the fight against this unjust and dangerous law,” said Angela Vigil, Partner and Executive Director of Pro Bono Practice at Baker McKenzie LLP. “We plan to show the court and the state the harm caused to children and families by this law is destructive in so many ways for education, community, families and, most importantly, children.”  

Judges Berger and Winsor were both nominated to the federal bench by then-President Trump and were endorsed by the right wing Federalist society.

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