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Arguments Heard In Transgender Name Change Lawsuit

Emily Previti
Keystone Crossroads
In 1998, the Pennsylvania legislature voted to prohibit name changes for people with serious felony convictions.

Pennsylvania’s law governing legal name changes was up for debate before the state’s Commonwealth Court in Pittsburgh Thursday. Three transgender women have challenged a provision of the statute that bars people from changing their names if they have been convicted of serious felonies.

While the rule is meant to prevent fraud, the plaintiffs argue they are entitled under the state constitution to seek a name change, in order to protect their privacy and reputation.

"And if the legislature wants to restrict that right, it better use means that are an appropriate fit for a legitimate purpose," the plaintiffs’ attorney, Patrick Yingling said following Thursday’s arguments.

In a complaint filed in May, the plaintiffs share instances where they have involuntarily had to disclose personal details about their gender identity because they cannot change their legal names. They say, for example, they have faced harassment and scorn when police ask to see their identification, and when they must show their ID at restaurants and bars.

"In effect, they need to out themselves as transgender on a regular basis," Yingling said.

The state attorney general's office, which represents the defendants in the case, said the law was meant to enhance public safety and welfare and argued there is no fundamental right to a name change in the state constitution.

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro issued a statement Tuesday that his office has a responsibility to defend the constitutionality of Pennsylvania laws, “despite my personal opinion.”

“I understand that being required to live with a name that doesn’t represent who you really are creates a myriad of hardships,” Shapiro said.

In a filing seeking dismissal, the attorney general's office notes that felons can be deprived of certain rights such as the right to serve on a jury or own a firearm.

And the office contended that “the restrictions are rationally related to the valid concern that people with serious felony convictions may seek to assume a new identity in order to avoid detection and escape the consequences of their convictions.”

But at arguments Thursday, Yingling countered that the name-change process already has other safeguards against fraud. For example, applicants usually must advertise their name change in two newspapers or similar publications.

Yingling said people who have been convicted of serious felonies have a right at least to ask a judge for a name change.

The lawsuit does not seek to overturn the law entirely, only the section that prevents felons from going to court to show their name change is not designed for a fraudulent purpose.

Current state law includes murder, rape, and robbery among the serious felonies that preclude people from changing their names. People convicted of less serious crimes must wait at least two years after completing their sentence, and not be on probation or parole, before obtaining a name change.

The plaintiffs are Chauntey Mo'Nique Porter, who has a 2008 aggravated assault conviction; Alonda Talley, who was convicted in 2009 of aggravated assault; and Priscylla Renee Von Noaker, who did 10 years in prison on a 1987 rape conviction, according to the plaintiffs' filings. All three kept their previous or similar surnames.

The defendants include the Commonwealth itself, the Pennsylvania Department of State, and the department’s acting secretary, Kathy Boockvar.

The attorney general’s office also argues the lawsuit names the wrong defendants. While the name-change statute authorizes the state department to administer name changes, the attorney general’s office notes that it’s the courts that accept and review name-change applications. And the office says the Commonwealth is generally immune from a challenge like the plaintiffs’.

But on Thursday, Senior Commonwealth Court Judge Bonnie Leadbetter seemed skeptical of that argument. She noted it could leave those who want to challenge the name-change law with no one to sue.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.
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