Pa. name-change law declared unconstitutional

A Pittsburg judge last week declared Pennsylvania’s name-change statute unconstitutional as it relates to restrictions for convicted felons. Advocates are hailing the ruling as a victory for trans rights. They say it will pave the way for trans felons in Pennsylvania to have their name reflect their gender identity without undue restrictions.

On Dec. 15, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Christine Ann Ward made the declaration when granting name-change petitions for two trans women convicted of felonies. The women are Chauntey Mo’Nique Porter, 42, and Priscylla Renee Von Noaker, 71.

In her one-page orders granting each woman’s petition, Ward noted there were no legal objections to the name changes and no judgments or decrees pending against the women. 

“I’m so happy,” Porter said, after the hearing. “I’m going to go home and snuggle in my fiancée’s arms and plan my wedding.” 

Ward couldn’t be reached for comment, but her law clerk confirmed in an email that Ward declared the statute unconstitutional. A transcript of Ward’s remarks is available here.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro won’t challenge Ward’s declaration. “Our office does not plan to challenge Judge Ward’s Order,” Shapiro’s spokesperson said, in an email.

A week earlier, on Dec. 7,  Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Sierra Thomas Street granted the name-change petition of Monae Alvarado, who has felony convictions. But Sierra Thomas stopped short of declaring the state law unconstitutional. 

All three women were represented by attorneys at Trangender Legal Defense & Education Fund along with attorneys at Reed Smith Law Firm, based in Pittsburgh.

Ayden Scheim, professor of social epidemiology at Drexel University and researcher on the impact of stigma and discrimination on health, testified at the Dec. 15 hearing. He said there are three forms of gender affirmation that lead to positive health outcomes: physical affirmation, social affirmation and legal affirmation. Moreover, he asserted that forcing someone to use a name with which they do not identify causes deep harm.

After the Dec. 15 proceedings, Gabriel Arkles, senior litigation counsel at TLDEF, issued this statement: “Trans people – particularly Black and Native American trans women – already face tremendous discrimination, harassment and violence every day, just for living as their authentic selves. Today’s ruling gives our clients back the power to choose when and where to disclose their trans identities, and the chance to be treated with the respect they deserve no matter where they go.”

The state law at issue forbids name-change petitions for persons convicted of serious felonies and for persons still on probation or parole due to a felony conviction. It was enacted in 1998 by the state legislature. The serious felonies include murder, voluntary manslaughter, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, robbery, aggravated assault, arson, and kidnapping.

Pennsylvania residents convicted of less serious felonies must wait at least two years after completing their sentence before seeking a name change in Common Pleas Court, according to the state law. Any past criminal history would be updated with the new name.

In July 2020, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court rejected a petition from three trans women to strike down the law. The 10-page ruling was handed down July 29, 2020, by Judges Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter, Patricia A. McCullough and Michael H. Wojcik.

The three-judge panel didn’t rule on the merits of the case. Instead, the panel ruled that the women’s attorneys hadn’t sued the proper parties. Thus, the panel dismissed the case. “We express no opinion on the potential merits of a future suit against proper parties,” the panel wrote.  The panel didn’t specify the proper party to be sued.

The parties sued were the Pennsylvania Department of State, then-Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathryn Boockvar and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Advocates say the name-change law violates trans people’s right to privacy, their right to control their name and their right to avoid compelled speech by the government. State officials, however, say the law helps prevent fraud and other crimes, according to court papers.

Name-change petitioners in Pennsylvania still will be required to attend a hearing and demonstrate to a Common Pleas judge that they’re acting in good faith. The statute requires such a hearing and that provision wasn’t challenged.

“The court has declared the statute unconstitutional, which means it is no longer in effect,” said David Brown, legal director at TLDEF, in a news release. “If the state does attempt an appeal, we look forward to the opportunity to repeat our victory at the appellate level.”

Brown added that it’s still possible that Trans Pennsylvanians with felonies seeking name changes will face denials, especially outside of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. However, he said TLDEF will do everything it can to ensure no one is denied a name change due to the unconstitutional statute, according to the news release.

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, the Keystone Press and the Pennsylvania Press Club.