Judge in Missouri transgender foster care lawsuit agrees to step down but condemns ‘gambling’

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A judge agreed Friday to recuse himself in a lawsuit challenging a new Missouri law that restricts gender-affirming health care for minors, despite what he called “gambling” by plaintiffs’ lawyers they had demanded a new judge.

St. Louis Circuit Judge Steven Ohmer has been appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court to preside over the lawsuit seeking to overturn the Missouri law. The lawsuit was filed in July by the ACLU of Missouri, Lambda Legal and the law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner on behalf of families of three transgender minors, a health center in St. Louis and LGBTQ+ organizations.

Ohmer said at a hearing that the appointment of a new judge would potentially delay resolution of the case until next year. It is unclear when the state Supreme Court will make the appointment.

“And the wheels of justice continue to turn in the mud,” Ohmer said.

Ohmer in August denied the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction blocking the new law, days before it took effect. ACLU of Missouri attorney Tony Rothert didn’t say whether that was the reason the change was sought, but he said court rules are clear: Plaintiffs have a right to a new judge if requested in a timely manner.

Missouri Attorney General Josh Divine argued that the plaintiffs had already been assigned a new judge — without asking. Plaintiffs’ attorneys said early on that they would seek a new judge if the case was assigned to Cole County District Judge Daniel Green. Green was actually assigned to the case, then immediately dismissed.

However, Ohmer ruled that Green’s proactive approach did not prevent the plaintiffs from exercising their right to a change of judge.

“In this case it comes down to a lot of posturing and skill,” said Ohmer.

Missouri is one of several states to impose new restrictions on transgender care of minors this year. Lawsuits have been filed in several states.

Missouri law, which took effect Aug. 28, bans puberty blockers, hormones and gender-affirming surgeries in minors. Although it allows exceptions for those who were already taking these medications before the law took effect, consequences quickly emerged: Both the Washington University Transgender Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and the University of Missouri Health Care in Columbia stopped prescribing puberty blockers and hormones to a minor for the purpose of gender reassignment.

Lambda Legal attorney Nora Huppert described the law as not only “harmful and cruel,” but also “life-threatening” for young people seeking gender-inclusive care. Research suggests that transgender youth and adults are vulnerable to stress, depression and suicidal thoughts. However, there is less evidence that hormone treatment or surgery solves these problems.

Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed the bill in June. He said the state “must protect children from making life-changing decisions that they may regret in adulthood, when they have become physically and emotionally more mature.”

Health care providers who violate the Transgender Health Act face the possibility of having their medical licenses revoked. Additionally, any provider who prescribes puberty blockers and hormones to minors faces potential lawsuits from these patients up to 15 years after they turn 21.

If the patients win, the doctors must pay at least $500,000 in punitive damages and up to $1.5 million in total damages.

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