BILLINGS, Mont. — Just hours after a Montana judge blocked health officials from enforcing a state rule that would prevent transgender people from changing the gender on their birth certificate, the Republican-run state on Thursday said it would defy the order.
District Court Judge Michael Moses chided attorneys for the state during a hearing in Billings for circumventing his April order that temporarily blocked a 2021 Montana law that made it harder to change birth certificates.
Moses said there was no question that state officials violated his earlier order by creating the new rule. Moses said his order reinstates a 2017 Department of Public Health and Human Services rule that allowed people to update the gender on their birth certificate by filing an affidavit with the department.
However, the state said it would disregard the ruling.
“The Department thoroughly evaluated the judge’s vague April 2022 decision and crafted our final rule to be consistent with the decision. It’s unfortunate that the judge’s ruling today does not square with his vague April decision,” said Charlie Brereton, director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Brereton said the agency was keeping the rule it issued last week in place and an agency spokesperson said the department is waiting to see the judge’s written order before considering its next steps.
ACLU attorney Malita Picasso expressed dismay with the agency’s stance and said officials should immediately start processing requests for birth certificate changes.
“It’s shocking that after this morning’s hearing the department would allege there was any lack of clarity in the court’s ruling from the bench,” Picasso said. “It was very clear that Judge Moses expressly required a reversion to the 2017 policy, and anything short of that is a continued flagrant violation of the court’s order.”
Such open defiance of judge’s order is very unusual from a government agency, said Carl Tobias, a former University of Montana Law School professor now at the University of Richmond. When officials disagree with a ruling, the typical response is to appeal to a higher court, he said.
“Appeal is what you contemplate — not that you can nullify a judge’s orders. Otherwise, people just wouldn’t obey the law,” Tobias said. “The system can’t work that way.”′
The move could leave state officials open to contempt of court charges, which in some cases can lead to jail time for offenders, Tobias said. He added that the attorneys representing the state were likely aware of the potential consequences but were “caught in the middle” between a recalcitrant agency and the judge.
The legal dispute comes as conservative lawmakers in numerous states have sought to restrict transgender rights, including with bans on transgender girls competing in girls school sports.
The Montana law said people had to have a “surgical procedure” before they could change the sex listed on their birth certificate, something Moses found to be unconstitutional because it did not specify what type of procedure was required.
Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration then created a new rule that blocked changes to birth certificates entirely, unless there was a clerical error.