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Full appeals court will hear Arkansas AG’s request to reverse ruling on transgender care for minors

Federal courthouse
The Richard Sheppard Arnold United States Post Office and Courthouse in Little Rock is seen in this file photo.

From the Arkansas Advocate:

The full 11-member 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed Friday to hear Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin’s appeal of a federal judge’s ruling that struck down the state’s ban on gender-affirming health care for transgender minors.

Act 626 of 2021, known as the Save Adolescents From Experimentation (SAFE) Act, prohibited physicians from providing “gender transition” treatments like hormones, puberty blockers and surgeries to those under age 18. Four Arkansas families and two physicians challenged the law in federal court, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas.

U.S. District Judge James Moody temporarily enjoined enforcement of the law in July 2021 and oversaw the lawsuit’s eight-day trial last year. He permanently blocked the law in June. Griffin appealed the decision in July and requested the full circuit court’s input in September.

Appeals are usually sent to a three-judge panel at the 8th Circuit. In August 2022, such a panel upheld Moody’s preliminary injunction on the SAFE Act. The full 11-member court refused to rehear the ruling in November.

Griffin praised the full court’s decision to hear the appeal as “historic” in a Friday news release.

“I am very pleased with today’s order as it allows my office to continue fighting to protect our state’s children from dangerous medical experimentation,” Griffin said.

Moody’s June ruling dismissed the testimony of several of the state’s witnesses during last year’s trial. The witnesses claimed that there is not enough evidence gender-affirming hormone treatments improve transgender people’s quality of life.

“The Court finds that the State has failed to prove that its interests in the safety of Arkansas adolescents from gender transitioning procedures or the medical community’s ethical decline are compelling, genuine, or even rational,” Moody wrote in his 80-page ruling.

He instead affirmed the testimony of the range of medical experts who said in their testimony for the plaintiffs that gender-affirming care is safe for minors.

The SAFE Act was the first law of its kind in the United States, though 20 states now have such laws. Court orders in Florida and Indiana temporarily blocked enforcement of those states’ gender-affirming care bans, to different extents, earlier this year.

However, in August, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court lifted an injunction on an Alabama law banning gender-affirming care for transgender youth.

Similarly, a 6th U.S. Circuit panel lifted a temporary block on a Tennessee law similar to the SAFE Act in July. A federal judge in Kentucky used the Tennessee ruling as a partial basis for his decision to lift a block on a similar Kentucky law later in the month.

Additionally, a federal judge in Georgia allowed the state’s gender-affirming care ban to go into effect in September after it was temporarily blocked in August, and another federal judge in Oklahoma ruled Thursday that the state’s own ban can be enforced.

Griffin said in the news release that he hopes the 8th Circuit will rule the same way as the judges in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.

Moody wrote in his ruling that the SAFE Act discriminated against transgender people and violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Both the federal and state constitutions protect young people from discrimination based on gender identity, Holly Dickson, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said in a statement.

“Arkansas politicians may try to cherry-pick laws that allow discrimination, but they cannot ignore constitutional and civil rights protections and any attempts to do so will be at the peril of all Arkansans and taxpayers,” Dickson said.

Tess Vrbin is a reporter with the nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization Arkansas Advocate. It is part of the States Newsroom which is supported by grants and a coalition of readers and donors.