Oral arguments will be held in Pittsburgh early next year in the case of three transgender women who are challenging a provision in the state’s name-change law that prevents Pennsylvanians convicted of serious felonies from changing their names.
The litigants are Philadelphia resident Alonda Talley and Allegheny County residents Chauntey Mo’Nique Porter and Priscylla Renee Von Noaker. They’re represented pro bono by the Reed Smith law firm, based in Pittsburgh, and the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, based in New York.
In May, they filed their legal challenge of the name-change ban in Commonwealth Court. But in September, Attorney General Josh Shapiro filed a brief, asking the court to dismiss the women’s case as meritless.
Shapiro’s brief claims the state legislature acted appropriately in 1998 when it unanimously enacted the name-change ban for persons convicted of serious felonies. Those felonies include murder, voluntary manslaughter, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, robbery, aggravated assault, arson and kidnapping.
In his brief, Shapiro noted that Porter was convicted of aggravated assault in 2008, Talley was convicted of aggravated assault in 2009 and Von Noaker was convicted of rape in 1987. Shapiro’s brief states that it’s proper for the women to be held accountable for their actions. His brief also emphasizes that the name-change ban doesn’t discriminate based on gender identity.
“The purpose of the statute is to promote the important — indeed, paramount — interest of public safety by preventing people convicted of serious felonies from changing their names in order to avoid detection and escape the consequences of their convictions,” Shapiro’s brief states. “The restrictions apply equally to all Pennsylvania residents convicted of the enumerated offenses regardless of their race, religion, gender, gender expression or identity.”
In a rebuttal brief filed in October, the women noted that the right to change one’s name was codified into law in Pennsylvania is 1852. Forcing someone to express an undesired name violates their free-speech rights, the brief asserts.
“When Pennsylvanians are denied a right to change their names, they are forced to express a name that is not theirs,” the brief states. “They cannot refrain from speaking nor from otherwise expressing a false, personal identity.”
The women’s brief emphasizes the necessity of having the name-change ban declared unconstitutional. “It is the duty of the courts to declare legislation unconstitutional when it abridges a right, like the one here, that is inherent in our common law and protects fundamental interests,” the brief states.
Additionally, the women’s brief notes that if the ban is lifted, the women would still be required to attend a hearing and demonstrate to a judge that they’re acting in good faith. The law requires such a hearing, and the women aren’t challenging that provision.
M. Patrick Yingling, an attorney for the women, told PGN he’ll travel from Chicago to Pittsburgh to argue the case. The arguments will be held during the week of Feb. 10, but the court hasn’t announced the exact date, he noted.
“We’re very pleased the court is holding oral arguments, rather than deciding the case solely on the briefs,” Yingling said. “These are important issues. Oral arguments can certainly help in reaching an appropriate outcome. The court is going to address our argument that the name-change law, as currently written, is unconstitutional. In addition to addressing our argument, the court likely is going to address the state’s argument that our case should be dismissed.” Yingling said the court might also decide to hold an additional hearing to collect more evidence about the case, before rendering a decision.
“If the court rules that the law is unconstitutional, our clients can move forward with their name-change petitions,” Yingling added.
Yingling expressed optimism about the case. “We are very confident in our legal position. That said, we recognize that it is always contentious when the constitutionality of a law is at stake,” he said.
A spokesperson for Shapiro couldn’t be reached for comment.