MADISON, Wis. — A federal judge has struck down a unique Wisconsin law that prohibits transgender inmates from receiving taxpayer-funded hormone therapy, which alters their appearance to be more like that of the opposite sex.
A group of male inmates who identify as female had challenged the 2006 law with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and Lambda Legal, a national gay rights group. They say they need the hormones to treat their gender identity disorder, and not having them would lead to severe health problems.
"It's a victory for these inmates who have a condition that is misunderstood and vilified for political purposes that can be very serious," Larry Dupuis, an ACLU lawyer who represented the plaintiffs, said Thursday. "To take away a whole class of treatment just because it's politically disfavored is not constitutional."
While similar prison policies in other states have been challenged successfully, the ACLU and Lambda Legal said the law was the only one of its kind in the nation that denied such medical care to transgender inmates.
Lawmakers who wrote the measure, declared unconstitutional and unenforceable Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Charles Clevert, reacted with outrage and urged Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to appeal. They warned the decision would open the door for taxpayer-funded sex changes for inmates, which the law had also blocked.
"This ruling puts a higher priority on helping inmate Tommy become Tammy than protecting the pocketbooks of law-abiding citizens," said Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford. "This is a travesty of justice that must be overturned."
Clevert said the law violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment because it "results in the denial of hormone therapy without regard for the individual medical needs of inmates and the medical judgment of their health-care providers." He added "there is no rational basis" for the law, which he said also violates their equal protection rights.
Clevert had issued a temporary order weeks after the law went into effect blocking prison officials from ending the therapy for inmates already receiving hormones during the lawsuit.
The law bans tax dollars from being used for inmates' hormone therapy and sexual reassignment surgery. Lawmakers approved it with bipartisan support and Gov. Jim Doyle signed it into law after an inmate who had received hormone therapy filed a lawsuit to try to force the prison to pay for his sex change.
Before the law went into effect, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections occasionally had approved hormone therapy for inmates its doctors diagnosed as having gender identity disorder. Dupuis estimated that only a handful of inmates receive the therapy at any given time.
Some of the plaintiffs had been on hormones for years before the law was passed. They included Andrea Fields, who had taken hormones since 1996. Before the law was blocked, the inmate's hormone dosage was cut in half, which led to nausea, weakness, loss of appetite and hair growth, according to court records.
Clevert, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1995, didn't address whether banning sex-change surgery was also unconstitutional in his three-page order and promised to issue a decision soon to elaborate.
Sen. Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield, one of the measure's sponsors, called the ruling absurd.
"This is another prime example of a liberal judge, far removed from the mainstream, overturning the will of the people," he said in a statement.
Van Hollen spokesman Bill Cosh said lawyers were reviewing the decision and considering an appeal.
If the ruling stands, taxpayers will likely be required to pay the inmates' legal fees, which Dupuis called substantial.