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A governor just sued his own attorney general over LGBT employment protections

The attorney general said he wasn’t going to stop blocking contracts unless he was sued, so the governor sued.

Gov. John Bel Edwards. CREDIT: AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte
Gov. John Bel Edwards. CREDIT: AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte

Louisiana’s governor just sued its attorney general over whether lawyers the state hires should be allowed to discriminate against LGBT people.

If that sounds odd, that’s because it is. And though there’s an easy moral answer to the conundrum, the legal answer might be far more complicated.

Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) was elected last year to succeed Bobby Jindal (R). One of the first things he did when taking office was reverse Jindal’s anti-LGBT policies, including Jindal’s executive order allowing businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples without any consequence from the state. Edwards then issued his own executive order protecting state workers and contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It was nearly identical to President Obama’s 2014 executive order protecting LGBT federal employees and contractors, as well as Louisiana gubernatorial executive orders protecting LGB state employees that were in place before Jindal rescinded them in 2008.

But despite both the state and federal precedent for such executive action, Attorney General Jeff Landry (R) wasn’t having it. Prompted by anti-LGBT lawmakers opposed to both Edwards’ executive order and the Obama administration’s guidance protecting transgender students, he issued an eight-page opinion in May declaring that neither was legally enforceable in the state.

“The brief answer is an Executive Order cannot expand or create state law,” Landry wrote. “‘Gender identity’ is not and has never been a legally protected class under state or federal anti-discrimination laws.” He insisted that the order protecting LGBT employees “should be interpreted as merely aspirational and without any binding legal effect.”

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Even giving Landry the benefit of the doubt that he was just trying to check the power of the executive, his own anti-LGBT biases are not in doubt. He also said that the federal transgender guidance “creates an environment in which children may be more easily exposed to sexual predators.” Rules simply affirming transgender students’ identities “place the mental well-being and privacy rights of ninety-nine percent of Louisiana’s children at risk without any demonstrable evidence of benefit to the less than one percent of the population this policy purports to benefit.”

For the past four months, Landry and Edwards have engaged in this standoff, warring over state legal contracts. Edwards keeps including LGBT nondiscrimination language in proposed contracts with private lawyers, and Landry keeps blocking them specifically because of this language. He has blocked at least 37 contracts, including 11 from the Department of Insurance. Defending his actions, Landry’s office has asserted, “The Attorney General requires antidiscrimination clauses in legal contracts to be written in conformity with State and Federal law, therefore, these provisions should not contain language exceeding what the law requires.”

Matthew Block, general counsel for the Edwards administration, explained last week that these blocked contracts are starting to have a big impact on the management of the state. “We have a lot of things that need to get attended to and we need to have people doing their work,” he told NOLA.com. “I have law firms not getting paid for the work that they are doing. I have law firms that are waiting around to start work.”

So on Friday, Edwards sued Landry in state court. At a press conference Friday, he was pretty blunt about the standoff. “He basically told me that if I wanted him to approve those contracts that I would have to sue him,” Edwards said. “So I’m obliging him on that.”

The lawsuit states that Landry “has refused to perform the ministerial task of approving private contracts and appointing private counsel for numerous executive agencies of the State.” He has “explicitly rejected most of the contracts on the grounds that the contracting attorneys should not have agreed not to discriminate in employment and the rendering of services” in accordance with the executive order. In other words, the lawyers who would be impacted by the LGBT protections have already agreed to them, but Landry has still denied the contracts because that language is in them.

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The conflict is spurring some interesting political divisions. For example, Louisiana Senate President John Alario (R), voted against LGBT nondiscrimination protections in the legislature, but he told NOLA.com that he believes the governor isn’t overstepping his authority. It’s Landry, he said, who he thinks “is stepping out of bounds.”

Landry has stood by his actions, saying in an interview that he looks forward to “defending the legislature and their priorities and their wishes.” He added that he believes the protections create “additional liabilities and expenses for the state,” but refused to answer questions about his own position on protecting LGBT people from discrimination.

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It will now be up to the state courts to resolve the conflict, or at least to interpret whether Landry is within his authority as attorney general to rebuff the executive order. It could, however, be the first time that a court weighs the validity of an executive order that protects workers from discrimination.

But Louisiana is hardly an outlier for the actions Edwards took. There are 12 other states that, through executive order or similar administrative regulation, extend employment protections to state employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity that exceed protections under state law. And of course, past Louisiana governors protected sexual orientation without having to sue their attorneys general to enforce them.