By Peter Dawson, Senior Editor, Hackney Publications
Sports law is so intertwined in the legal landscape these days that almost every national story involving the law has a sports law component.
Take the passing of United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett, a judge in United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, to fill Ginsburg’s seat. Barrett’s opinion regarding one specific case holds special significance in collegiate athletics.
The name of that case is John Doe v. Purdue University. Judge Barrett’s role in deciding the case’s outcome in that case has already had a major impact on the subject of Title IX reform and could continue to do so.
In the past, changes to Title IX procedures alter how college athletic departments determine the eligibility of accused student athletes. In turn, a universities’ eligibility for federal funding could be determined by a university’s positive or negative record of compliance.
Plaintiffs “John Doe” and “Jane Doe” were previously in a relationship at Purdue University. Several months after that relationship ended, Jane made sexual assault accusations against John to the school, which he denied.
The university reportedly asked John to appear before a panel of three administrators. The panel investigated the incident and created a report, which John claims the university did not allow him to access. Specifically, he was also told he could not examine evidence from the report or have fellow students speak to the panel about the incident.
Previous news reports suggest John was found guilty after only being given partial access to a redacted document that included a false confession and left out key facts. Those same reports stated that two of the three administrators on the panel admitted to not having even read the investigative report. In addition, Jane did not serve as a witness or supply written testimony to the panel.
The panel found John Doe guilty, which allegedly caused him to lose his ROTC scholarship and an opportunity to serve in the United States Navy. Doe sought relief from the court. He argued before a federal judge that the school had a monetary reason to discriminate against male students and on the basis of his sex in violation of Title IX. That ruling was appealed.
Eventually, a three-judge panel from the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, of which Judge Barrett was the senior member, allowed John’s lawsuit to proceed. Judge Barrett also strongly stated in her opinion that Purdue’s procedural methods “fell short of what even a high school must provide to a student facing a days-long suspension.”
Ultimately, that court concluded that the university engaged in gender discrimination in violation of Title IX. Its ruling also concluded that the university violated John’s right to due process.
A Purdue University spokesperson told media members that the university believed it provided “broad and appropriate protections.”
John Doe v. Purdue had numerous moving parts and impacted individuals and institutions in different ways. It has been very impactful very impactful having been cited in 49 federal court rulings, according to Lexis. There are also appeals involving accused students circulating in the First, Third, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits.
We sought out the commentary of Frederick M. Lawrence, a Distinguished Lecturer in Law at Georgetown University Law Center and an expert in the area.
He told us that John Doe v. Purdue University “is the best evidence we have of Judge Barrett’s views on Title IX and anti-discrimination legislation. Although technically all the decision did was reinstate ‘John Doe’s’ lawsuit after it had been dismissed by the trial court, it does shed some light on how Judge Barrett might rule on such cases as a Supreme Court justice. “
He continued: “Her opinion relies on two major grounds — on one she may have right, but the other raises serious concerns for the protection of victims of discrimination. First, she suggested that Purdue University’s procedures for investigating sex discrimination cases was constitutionally inadequate and denied John Doe due process of law; this may well be correct. Second, she suggested that the means by which the university was enforcing sex discrimination laws, which apply regardless of the gender of complainant and accused, was itself gender-based discrimination. The record in the case does not support such a reading and Judge Barrett’s finding conjures up arguments of “reverse discrimination” that have long be used to limit and even defeat important efforts to address discrimination on our campuses and indeed in the broader society.”