MADISON, Wis. – The Wisconsin Supreme Court's conservative majority ruled Thursday that a transgender woman cannot change her name because she is on the state's sex offender registry and the law does not allow people on the registry to change their names.
The court’s 4-3 decision upholds the rulings of two lower courts, which rejected the woman's requests to change her name and avoid registering as a sex offender.
The woman, identified in court documents only as Ella, was required to register as a sex offender after being convicted of sexually assaulting a disabled 14-year-old boy when she was 15. She is now 22.
According to court records, Ella was about 6-foot, 5-inches and more than 300 pounds (135 kilograms) at the time of the assault. The victim was 110 pounds, blind in one eye and autistic. After the assault, Ella taunted the victim on Facebook and told other students what happened, perpetuating his “victimization and trauma,” the court said.
The majority said those details were relevant to understanding the severity of the crime and why it was necessary to require Ella to register as a sex offender.
Ella entered the criminal justice system identifying as male and was ordered to register as a sex offender for 15 years. State law prohibits registered sex offenders from changing their names or using aliases not listed in the sex offender registry.
Ella's attorneys argued that not allowing her to change her name or avoid registering as a sex offender violated the First and Eighth Amendments as both a violation of her free speech and cruel and unusual punishment.
The Supreme Court rejected both of those arguments.
“Consistent with well established precedent, we hold Ella’s placement on the sex offender registry is not a ‘punishment’ under the Eighth Amendment,” Justice Rebecca Bradley wrote for the majority. “Even if it were, sex offender registration is neither cruel nor unusual. We further hold Ella’s right to free speech does not encompass the power to compel the State to facilitate a change of her legal name. ”
Ella can take other steps to express her gender identity, the majority said, she just can’t legally change her name.
“For example, nothing prohibits her from dressing in women’s clothing, wearing make-up, growing out her hair, or using a feminine alias,” Rebecca Bradley wrote. “The State has not branded Ella with her legal name, and when Ella presents a government-issued identification card, she is free to say nothing at all or to say, ‘I go by Ella.’”
Rebecca Bradley was joined in the majority by Chief Justice Annette Ziegler and Justices Patience Roggensack and Brian Hagedorn. Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote the dissenting opinion and was joined by Justices Rebecca Dallet and Jill Karofsky.
The dissenting justices agreed that Ella's arguments alleging an Eighth Amendment violation of cruel and unusual punishment fail. But they said she should be allowed to petition a court to legally change her name based on First Amendment rights.
The majority “discounts the burdens Ella faces as a result of the restriction,” Ann Walsh Bradley wrote. A person’s name is an essential part of their identity, she wrote, citing Muhammad Ali and Caitlyn Jenner as high profile examples.
“Requiring Ella to maintain a name that is inconsistent with her gender identity and forcing her to out herself every time she presents official documents exposes her to discrimination and abuse,” she wrote for the minority.
Cary Bloodworth, the public defender who represented Ella, has not returned a message seeking comment.
Associated Press writer Harm Venhuizen contributed to this report. He is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HarmVenhuizen.