Draft Title IX regulations were leaked (presumably by a critic of fairer procedures) to the New York Times. The draft regulations remind that Title IX requires schools to be fair to both sides, not just the accuser; they also call for at least a circumscribed form of cross-examination. In these respects, they do nothing more than telling schools to avoid what many courts already have held out as problematic actions by colleges and universities.
The decline of Democratic support (at least among legislators) for basic fairness in campus procedures has been a troubling trend of the past two years. As with the reaction to Betsy DeVos’ decision last year to withdraw Obama-era guidance, there was no support for the new regulations among Democratic legislators. But far, far fewer legislators publicly commented to the Times story (perhaps they’re waiting for revelation of the final regulations.)
As always seems to be the case on this issue, the most extreme reaction came from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand:
Gillibrand has offered no explanation as to what happens in cases where it isn’t clear which party (if any) is a “predator” and which a “survivor.”
The new regulations also generated a negative response from Washington senator Patty Murray, who has emerged as one of the fiercest defenders of the repudiated Obama-era policies:
Murray did not explain how providing basic procedural protections for accused students is “shameful” or “appalling,” or how these procedures would make it harder for victims to seek justice.
The longest response came from Pennsylvania senator Bob Casey, who contended (without specificing how) that the new regulations would violate the Clery Act. Beyond that, he too was heavy on ad hominem attacks (the regulations would “hurt victims”) devoid of substance.
The only other Democratic senators to comment were Jeanne Shaheen and Richard Blumenthan. They too offered non-substantive criticism:
Blumenthal, like his colleagues, didn’t explain why permitting some form of cross-examination, or saying that Title IX requires fairness to both sides, could be deplorable and disgusting.
[Update, 11 October: Without recorded dissent, the Sixth Circuit denied the University of Michigan’s request for an en banc rehearing of the case.]
[Update, 7 September: As expected, in a strong ruling, the panel ruled against Michigan on due process grounds–but also did so on the Title IX count, in a more robust manner than had seemed likely after oral argument.]
The Sixth Circuit appears poised to rule again for an accused student, in a lawsuit from the University of Michigan. Despite the court’s ruling about the importance of cross-examination in Cincinnati, the University of Michigan elected to maintain its Title IX procedures, which deny to the accused student any form of cross-examination. At least two judges on the panel—Amul Thapar and Julia Gibbons—seemed deeply troubled by this approach. (The third judge, Ronald Gilman, a Clinton nominee, asked no questions of either side.) Indeed, Thapar summarized the university’s argument as requesting authority to “set up a kangaroo court.”
This case is an unusually rich one factually (it also involves state litigation by the accuser). UM uses a single-investigator model, in which one person interviews the parties and other witnesses, and then writes a report. In this instance, the investigator found the accused student not guilty. But, exercising her rights established under the Obama-era Dear Colleague letter, the accuser appealed the finding. Using the same evidence as what was before the investigator, but without hearing from any of the parties, the appeals board found the accused student guilty, alleging that the accuser was incapacitated, and expelled him. Judge David Lawson, a Clinton nominee, ruled in favor of the university, largely due to his belief that the accused student was guilty and therefore any procedural deprivations were irrelevant.
Though a factually complex case, Doe v. Baum had a procedural simplicity to it: Doe v. Cincinnati said that some form of cross-examination benefits both the university and the accused student. But Michigan set up procedures in which neither the accused student nor the ultimate university decisionmaker benefited from cross-examination. And cross-examination would have mattered in this case, because the accuser’s medical records contradicted her claim to have been incapacitated.
Most questions that went to Gordon were soft or related to the factual record. (There was a section where Judge Gibbons appeared confused by the factual premise of the argument, but that confusion was clarified by the end of the hearing.) By contrast, DeBruin faced repeated, skeptical questions from both Thapar and Gibbons. He repeatedly evaded Thapar’s questions, and repeatedly interrupted Gibbons. (Both judges rebuked him at various points in the argument.) His basic claims:
First: Michigan didn’t have to follow Cincinnati, because an earlier Sixth Circuit case (Newsome) said cross-examination wasn’t required for high school students.
Judge Thapar was part of that Cincinnati panel—indeed, during its oral argument, he quoted from Newsome to show why it wasn’t appropriate to eliminating cross-examination for students accused under Title IX. He accused DeBruin’s position of disregarding “everything courts have ever said, including the United States Supreme Court, about cross-examination.”
Second, DeBruin maintained that to the extent Michigan was required to follow Cincinnati, it did so by providing the accused student with a “hearing” (his interview by the investigator) at which he could indirectly present questions to the accuser (which might or might not be asked).
Judge Gibbons seemed flabbergasted by this point: “Making findings based on interviews is not what I think of when I think of a hearing.”
Judge Thapar likewise seemed troubled by this comment, wondering why Michigan didn’t use this process in all cases if it considered the approach so beneficial:
Third, DeBruin contended that the accused student had no meaningful due process claim, because the procedures that Michigan supplied him (which denied any cross-examination) were better than those that the Cincinnati court envisioned, and the judiciary needed to defer to university judgment on this question.
This point aroused considerable frustration from both Thapar and Gibbons. After DeBruin accused the judges of second-guessing the appeals board’s factual findings, Thapar replied: “We’re not second-guessing the evaluation; we’re second-guessing the procedures provided to the Plaintiff before you deprive him of his rights. And what our problem is: is we view the due process clause, and what happens all the time—and we talked about it in Cincinnati, in Doe v. Cincinnati, where we said how fundamental cross-examination is when credibility is at issue. And what you’re saying is, “’Trust us, not the Constitution, and let the university tell you what’s sufficient.’”
A couple minutes later, Gibbons added, “I can’t get past the university’s indifference, defiance, or whatever you want to call it, to our Circuit precedent and to the basic principles of due process.”
Gibbons previously had noted that—given the facts of the case—it was absurd to suggest that the accused student’s rights were protected in the appeals process:
DeBruin’s time at the podium ended with one final question from Thapar, who noted that if the panel decided that this was a case that came down to the credibility of the accused and accuser, “you lose.” DeBruin’s response: “I agree.”
It seems likely, therefore, that Michigan will lose, though Gilman’s silence, and Gibbons’ previous authorship of the due process-unfriendly Cummins decisions—perhaps holds open the slimmest of chances for the school.
As we await a ruling in the first of (at least) three campus due process appeals to go before California appellate courts in the second half of 2018, a second case—involving a guilty finding from Claremont McKenna College—was argued before the Second District Court of Appeal. The oral argument here was not as lopsided as in the UCSB case, but at least two of the justices—Victoria Chaney and Helen Bendix—appeared sympathetic to the accused student’s claim that the process used by CMC was fundamentally unfair.
Neither of the two students in this case came across as particularly appealing; both also had considerable inconsistencies in their portrayal of events. (Counsel for both sides conceded the latter point during oral argument.) The accuser filed her sexual assault claim months after the alleged incident; her version of events contradicted what she had told not only friends at the time but also medical officials; and the story she told CMC officials evolved over time. The accused student boasted of the sexual encounter to friends in a particularly vulgar fashion. He too had inconsistencies in his story, although to a far lesser extent than the accuser.
Under CMC procedures, both parties spoke to an investigator, who in turn produced a report for the hearing panel—of which the investigator was one of three members. A hearing then occurred, at which the accused student testified as to his innocence; the accuser did not appear. The panel found him guilty, and a superior court did not disturb the judgment. The argument before the appeals court focused on three procedural issues—one related to notice, the other two to the adequacy of CMC’s procedures (which were oddly unfair, even for Title IX tribunals, given the dual role of the investigator).
The notice issue was a nuanced one: the accused student conceded that he eventually was told of the central charge against him—that at the tail end of a sexual encounter that was clearly consensual, the accuser claimed that she had withdrawn consent. Initially, however, CMC’s investigator only told him that he was alleged to have violated the school’s sexual misconduct policy, but not in any specific manner. In his first interview, then, he maintained that he had consent for intercourse (which—he didn’t realize—was not the issue the accuser was raising) and did not recall the specific words the accuser had used to indicate consent at the tail end of the incident—because, again, he hadn’t understood this was the focus of the case. The CMC panel would use his initial failure to be clear on the wording of his accuser’s consent at the tail end of his encounter as a reason to doubt his credibility.
His argument, therefore, was that if he had received notice of the actual allegations in his first interview, he would have responded to them clearly, and the CMC panel would have had no reason to have doubted his credibility. This lack of notice was particularly important because it was the only one of the five points raised by the CMC panel that clearly called into question the accused student’s credibility.
The justices did not show much interest in this aspect of the argument—which was unfortunate, since the conduct of the CMC investigator resembled that of some Title IX officials from the thread exposed by Laura Kipnis, withholding meaningful notice from the accused student in the hopes of trapping him into revealing his “guilt.”
Two of the justices, however, were much more engaged on the second procedural point: that in a he-said/she-said case, it was unfair for the CMC panel to have deemed the accuser the more credible of the parties even though she never testified before the panel.
Justice Bendix noted that the basic issue was a “fair process,” and CMC’s insistence that courts should simply defer to educational institutions didn’t hold water.
(That she closed the exchange by referencing the recent Michigan TRO—which was decided after briefing in the case, but which mirrored, to some degree, the issues at Claremont McKenna—was striking.)
Justice Chaney, meanwhile, pointed out that the accuser’s presence in the room was meaningful for determining her credibility, at least for the two panelists who had never met her. “The concern that I have,” she noted, “is the lack of the ability to absorb sensory input by the two judges who were not present during the interviews.”
Only Justice Laurie Zelon seemed untroubled by the accuser’s absence at the hearing, oddly analogizing the case to a domestic violence trial, where critical information might be supplied by the police officer or a counselor.
Later in the argument, Justice Chaney rejected this analogy; Justice Bendix likewise seemed disinterested in it.
CMC’s lawyer, Appala Chopra, pursued an unusual strategy of not meaningfully responding to the justices’ questions about the significance of the accuser’s non-presence at the hearing. She instead chose to focus on issues that the panel repeatedly told her were not in dispute, or on the assertion that Claremont McKenna had a right to develop its own procedures, subject only to evolving restrictions under the common law, as long as it provided some form of notice and a chance to be heard. But Chopra eventually retreated to a claim that CMC’s process provided a fair chance for the decisionmaker to have evaluated the credibility of the accuser because at least one of the panelists (the investigator) had met with the accuser individually.
That line of argument did not seem to persuade any of the justices. Here was Justice Chaney:
Justice Bendix then added that the Sixth Circuit’s Cincinnati decision (about which she spoke sympathetically throughout the hearing) showed a similar concern. When Chopra tried to argue that due process issues were irrelevant to CMC’s position as a private college, Bendix pointedly observed that cases she had cited in her own brief argued otherwise:
It was on this point that Chopra managed to (if only briefly) lose Justice Zelon, who noted that even in domestic violence cases, the police officer or crisis counselor who provided the testimony did not also serve as a juror in the case. Yet CMC allowed a double-dipping role for the investigator, which put the other two panelists, Zelon reasoned, in a “subordinate position.” (Justice Bendix chimed in that the other two panelists were “potted plants.”)
Based on this oral argument, it seems more likely than not that the accused student will prevail, with an opinion focusing on the fundamentally unfair impact of the accuser’s absence from the hearing. But even Justice Bendix, who seemed the most sympathetic of the panelists to the accused students, commented on the need for colleges to balance the rights of the accused with a system that will encourage accusers to report offenses. So there will remain some uncertainty until the opinion is rendered.
Audio of the full oral argument in the case is at this link.