Weekly Florida Roundup: Conflicts in the Courts

TALLAHASSEE — Legal fights over two controversial laws backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis were in focus in the courts this week, with a new lawsuit filed and a trial in another case kicking off in Tallahassee.

A federal judge on Wednesday heard testimony from the mother of a transgender girl in a constitutional challenge to a law (SB 254) that, in part, barred doctors from approving puberty blockers and hormone therapy for treatment of minors with gender dysphoria.

The mother, a St. Johns County resident identified by the pseudonym Jane Doe, testified that it would be “devastating” if the child could not get treatment.

“It would force her to be someone that she’s not,” Jane Doe said of a potential denial of treatment.

Jane Doe, a plaintiff in the case, said her 12-year-old daughter was identified as a male at birth but was diagnosed by a pediatrician with gender dysphoria at age 4. The girl has not started treatment with puberty blockers but has received care from endocrinologists as the family prepares for such a step.

The law at issue in the case also mandated that only physicians — not nurse practitioners — are allowed to approve hormone therapy, and it banned the use of telehealth for new prescriptions.

Thomas Redburn, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, accused the state of “invidious discrimination” against transgender people. He said, for example, the state has not barred puberty blockers and hormone therapy to treat other types of conditions.

“The state has singled out transgender people for disparate treatment without any adequate justification,” Redburn said.

The state’s lawyers, however, have argued that the plaintiffs will not be able to prove that the restrictions were motivated by “animus” toward transgender people.

Mohammad Jazil, an attorney for the state, contended during opening arguments Wednesday that the “state has every right to dictate some of the norms for medical treatment” for gender dysphoria.

The trial, which also deals with challenges to rules approved by the Florida Board of Medicine and Florida Board of Osteopathic Medicine, is expected to end next week.

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TUSSLE OVER TITLES

Also on Wednesday, three Florida teachers launched a federal legal challenge alleging a new state law restricting titles and pronouns at schools unconstitutionally discriminates against transgender and nonbinary educators.

The case focuses on a part of a 2023 law that says a school employee “may not provide to a student his or her preferred personal title or pronouns if such preferred personal title or pronouns do not correspond to his or her sex.”

The plaintiffs are transgender teachers in Hillsborough and Lee counties and a nonbinary teacher who was fired by Florida Virtual School in October after refusing to drop the title “Mx.” and the pronouns “they/them.”

Attorneys representing the teachers are arguing that the law discriminates against school employees and contractors on the basis of sex and violates the employees’ First Amendment rights and civil rights laws.

“Florida has stigmatized plaintiffs, threatened their psychological well-being, upended the respect that is owed to them as educators and that is necessary for a safe workplace and functioning classroom, and put their professions and families’ well-being on the line. Florida’s statute must give way to the Constitution and laws of the United States and must not be enforced,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote in the 61–page complaint.

Named as defendants are state Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, the Department of Education, the State Board of Education and its seven members, other state education officials and the school boards in Lee and Hillsborough counties.

DeSantis criticized the use of people’s preferred pronouns in schools before signing the bill that the challenge stems from in May.

“We never did this through all of human history until like, what, two weeks ago? Now this is something, they’re having third-graders declare pronouns? We’re not doing the pronoun Olympics in Florida. It’s not happening here,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis’ office and the Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

The three teachers have also filed discrimination complaints with federal labor officials.

RESTART REQUIRED

The state university system’s Board of Governors on Thursday required Florida Atlantic University to restart its search for a president, as the board plans to revamp rules about schools’ searches for leaders.

Restarting the FAU search means the school will be under an interim leader potentially well into next year, as search processes typically take months — and FAU won’t be able to relaunch a search until at least late January.

The school’s search for a new leader was halted in July at the direction of state university system Chancellor Ray Rodrigues, who raised concerns that aspects of the search may have violated state law and Board of Governors regulations. Rodrigues subsequently ordered an investigation by the board’s inspector general, the results of which were reviewed by the board on Thursday.

A report about the investigation took issue with the use of an anonymous survey to rank candidates, questionnaires that asked candidates about their sexuality, “withholding” of certain information to the search committee and questions about whether the search complied with Board of Governors rules.

Board of Governors member Alan Levine, who also served on the FAU Presidential Search Committee, characterized the process as flawed and supported rebooting it despite the initial search yielding three finalists.

“I don’t impugn the motives of anybody that was on that search committee. But the reality is that the process didn’t work right. And even if it produced good candidates, that could be fruit from a poison tree. And it’s not something that we should ever entertain,” Levine said.

Meanwhile, members of the Board of Governors will consider changing rules about universities’ presidential search and selection processes. Board of Governors Chairman Brian Lamb said rules could stand to be “more granular” in guidance to schools.

As part of the potential changes, board members discussed possibly barring chairs of university trustee boards from also serving as chairs of presidential search committees.

The potential changes are expected to be considered during a Jan. 24 Board of Governors meeting. Members of the board on Thursday decided to delay allowing FAU to restart its search until the rules are updated.

STORY OF THE WEEK: With the mother of a transgender girl testifying that it would be “devastating” if the child could not get treatment, a federal judge Wednesday began a trial in a constitutional challenge to Florida restrictions on such things as puberty blockers and hormone therapy for transgender people.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “The bottom line is, Florida is wonderful because we have a Legislature and a Department of Education that is very much in favor of parents having more empowerment, more flexibility. But that very much makes things more challenging.” — John Kirtley, chairman of the scholarship-funding organization Step Up for Students, on the state’s recent massive expansion of school-voucher programs.


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