Judges side with transgender man in protecting privacy of name changes

An appeals court on Wednesday ruled in favor of a transgender man who sought to seal his name change from the public record, declaring transgender people deserve privacy and protection from the harms that could arise from publicizing their name changes.

Superior Court Judge Michael J. Haas, writing for a unanimous three-judge appellate panel, overturned a lower court’s 2020 decision that would have required the Mercer County man, identified as A.B.C. in court records, to publish his new name and deadname in a newspaper. The lower court judge also refused to seal court records to avoid public disclosure of the man’s name and transgender identity.

A.B.C.’s name change has “no meaningful public interest,” Haas wrote.

“It is difficult to imagine a more intimate, personal, and private matter than whether a person’s gender identity conforms with the sex they were assigned at birth, typically based upon the existence and appearance of their reproductive organs, and their chromosomal makeup,” the ruling says.

Attorney Celeste Fiore, who represented A.B.C., called the ruling an example of “New Jersey law being at the forefront of equal rights nationwide.”

“These are some of the strongest statements by the courts describing the privacy interests, but also the human rights interests, in a transgender person having control over who knows things about their identity,” Fiore said.

The lower court judge in this case is Mercer County Judge William Anklowitz. Haas’ ruling says Anklowitz erred when he discounted A.B.C.’s fear that people who discover he is transgender could physically harm or discriminate against him. Anklowitz also should not have required A.B.C. to either show he’d personally experienced violence or discrimination because he is transgender, or cite study data of such transgender-related violence in New Jersey, the panel ruled.

The New Jersey Supreme Court in December 2020 — two months after Anklowitz’s ruling — eliminated requirements that name change applications and judgments be published, citing the need to protect the privacy and safety of transgender, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary people who change their names to align with their gender identity.

A.B.C. asked Anklowitz to reconsider his ruling in light of the Supreme Court’s action, but Anklowitz in January 2021 instead doubled down on his refusal to seal A.B.C.’s name change filings. Haas called that “especially puzzling” — and potentially dangerous.

“By requiring that appellant’s name change application be publicly available, and thereby publicly identifying appellant as transgender, the court would violate appellant’s right to privacy and could heighten the risk of physical harm to appellant, or even facilitate such harm by making it easier for people to identify him as transgender,” Haas wrote.

Anklowitz did not respond to a request for comment.

“It is definitely a victory for A.B.C. to have his name change be sealed, certainly, but this is a statement to trans people saying, ‘We see you,’” Fiore said. “He is very excited that his name change is going to be confidential, and if this decision can help other people, he is thrilled that this process is going to result in an easier time for others.”

This case isn’t the first time Anklowitz upset the LGBT community with one of his rulings. In 2016, he used disparaging terms like “family-ish” when referring to a lesbian couple during proceedings in a civil lawsuit a woman filed after a Trenton fire truck hit and killed her partner in 2009, according to the Trentonian. Anklowitz’s decision and comments in that case drew rebukes from Garden State Equality and the New Jersey Bar Association.

Post originally appeared in New Jersey Monitor