In re Childers-Gray, No. 20170046

CourtUtah Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtJustice Himonas, opinion of the Court
Citation487 P.3d 96
Parties In the MATTER OF the Sex Change of Sean W. CHILDERS-GRAY, f.k.a. Jenny Pace, and Angie Rice, f.k.a. Arthur Edward Rice, Appellants.
Docket NumberNo. 20170046
Decision Date06 May 2021

487 P.3d 96

In the MATTER OF the Sex Change of Sean W. CHILDERS-GRAY, f.k.a. Jenny Pace, and Angie Rice, f.k.a. Arthur Edward Rice, Appellants.

No. 20170046

Supreme Court of Utah.

Heard January 8, 2018
Supplemental Briefing Completed January 6, 2020
Filed May 6, 2021


T. Christopher Wharton, Eric Kyler O'Brien, Bethany M. Jennings, Troy L. Booher, Beth E. Kennedy, Alexandra Mareschal, Salt Lake City, for appellants

Justice Himonas authored the opinion of the Court in which Justices Pearce and Petersen joined.

Justice Himonas, opinion of the Court:


¶1 Appellants, Sean Childers-Gray and Angie Rice, petitioned the district court to change their legal sex designations because the designations do not reflect their identities. Supposing such matters implicate a purely legislative prerogative, the district court denied Appellants’ petitions.

¶2 The district court was mistaken in its supposition. A person has a common-law right to change facets of their personal legal status, including their sex designation. In recognition of this right, the Utah legislature has statutorily declared that, as a matter of the public policy of this state, when "a person born in this state has a name change or sex change approved by an order of a Utah district court,"2 they can file such order with the state registrar with an application to change their birth certificate. UTAH CODE § 26-2-11(1).3 If the registrar determines the application is complete, the registrar must change the sex on the person's birth certificate. Id.

487 P.3d 100

¶3 Associate Chief Justice Lee's dissent disagrees on all fronts, contesting the relevant legislation and the historical practice of Utah courts. The dissent suggests that it is protecting the interests of the State. See , e.g. , infra ¶ 195 (suggesting that our articulated standard "will control all future proceedings in our Utah courts and will bind the executive branch of our government ... going forward"). Yet the State does not argue for the principles the dissent advances. In its amicus brief, the State either opposes the dissent's position or presents arguments for why we should not reach such a resolution. Nevertheless, we take care throughout our opinion to respond to the dissent's arguments, which we firmly reject.

¶4 Today, we provide a plain-meaning interpretation of the duly enacted law allowing individuals to change their sex designations. In the process, we explain that Mr. Childers-Gray and Ms. Rice met the requirements—articulated by us today but rooted in common law and applied by Utah district courts and other authorities—for their sex-change petitions to be approved.4 Accordingly, we reverse and remand with instructions to enter orders granting their sex-change petitions.5


¶5 Sean Childers-Gray6 is a transgender7 man who was assigned female at birth. He "lives 100% as a male" and holds himself out as a male to his family, friends, and the public. He was diagnosed with gender identity disorder8 and underwent hormone therapy to change his physical appearance. At the time of his petition, he had been treated with hormone therapy for more than three years. This therapy significantly changed his voice, body hair growth, and breast tissue, and caused his female organs to no longer function.

487 P.3d 101

¶6 Angie Rice9 is a transgender woman who was assigned male at birth. She "lives 100% as a female" and holds herself out as a female to her family, friends, and the public. She was diagnosed with gender dysphoria,10 and at the time of her petition's filing, she had been treated with hormone therapy for five years to change her physical appearance.

¶7 Mr. Childers-Gray and Ms. Rice each filed petitions in the district court, seeking orders to change their names and sex, which would allow them to change the designations on their birth certificates. The petitions complied with the requirements outlined in Utah Code section 42-1-1, which governs name-change petitions (Utah does not have a statute governing the express content of sex-change petitions). Specifically, the petitions included the reasons for the name and sex changes and statements that Mr. Childers-Gray and Ms. Rice had been residents of the county where they lived for at least one year before filing. See UTAH CODE § 42-1-1. In addition, both petitions included letters from a medical doctor stating that appellants had been treated for gender dysphoria and had undergone "the appropriate clinical treatment" for gender transition. The petitions also stated that appellants were not listed on the sex offender registry, involved in any legal proceedings, placed on probation or parole, seeking to avoid creditors, or seeking the name- and sex-designation changes for any fraudulent purpose. Ms. Rice's petition also documented her personal history, the significant emotional distress that she endured in the past when presenting herself as a man, and the negative treatment she endures now because her "documentation doesn't match who" she is.

¶8 The district court granted Mr. Childers-Gray's and Ms. Rice's name-change petitions, ruling that all statutory requirements had been satisfied. But the district court denied their sex-change petitions.

¶9 The district court gave two reasons for denying Mr. Childers-Gray's sex-change petition. First, it held "there is no statute in the State of Utah that sets forth either standards or procedures under which the court may consider such request." The district court found that such lack of legislative guidance meant that a sex-change matter is a nonjusticiable political question. Second, the district court denied the sex-change petition under the name-change standard. It explained that a name-change petition must be denied if it will "affect the legal rights or duties of either the petitioner or anyone else." Applying that standard to sex-change petitions, the district court found that granting the sex-change petition was undoubtedly bound to affect others’ rights. It then gave numerous hypotheticals in which a sex change would affect the "rights and duties of others that interact with" Mr. Childers-Gray.

¶10 The district court did not rely on this second reason when it denied Ms. Rice's sex-change petition. It held only that "[t]he procedure for obtaining a sex/gender marker change must be set forth by the legislature,"

487 P.3d 102

and because it was not, the district court found itself "prohibited from invading the legislature's prerogative on this issue."

¶11 Appellants appealed the orders denying their petitions for sex changes. We consolidated the cases.11

¶12 During oral argument in January 2018, we noted sua sponte that appellants come before us unopposed and questioned whether this lack of adversariness deprived us of jurisdiction to hear the case. In November 2018, we issued an order staying this case pending our decision in In re Gestational Agreement , a case that also lacked adversariness and in which we expected to address the impact of such posture on our jurisdiction. We issued an opinion in that case in August 2019, In re Gestational Agreement , 2019 UT 40, 449 P.3d 69, and consequently requested supplemental briefing from appellants and called for the views of the State, through the Attorney General, under rule 25A(c) of the Rules of Appellate Procedure. We have jurisdiction under Utah Code section 78A-3-102(3)(j).


¶13 Although we have never reviewed a district court's decision to grant or deny a petition for sex change, we have reviewed decisions on petitions for name change "under an abuse of discretion standard." In re Porter , 2001 UT 70, ¶ 4, 31 P.3d 519. Because name changes and sex changes are analogous, see infra ¶¶ 40–43, we also review for abuse of discretion a district court's decision to grant or deny a petition for a sex change. And we review the legal questions underlying the determination for correctness. See Taylor v. Univ. of Utah , 2020 UT 21, ¶ 13, 466 P.3d 124.

¶14 "We review questions of statutory interpretation for correctness, affording no deference to the district court's legal conclusions." State v. Outzen , 2017 UT 30, ¶ 5, 408 P.3d 334 (citation omitted). And we review "the constitutionality of a statute for correctness, giving no deference to the lower court's interpretation," State v. Greenwood , 2012 UT 48, ¶ 26, 297 P.3d 556, presuming "the statute is constitutional" and resolving "any reasonable doubts in favor of constitutionality." Brown v. Cox , 2017 UT 3, ¶ 11, 387 P.3d 1040 (quoting State v. Drej , 2010 UT 35, ¶ 9, 233 P.3d 476 )).


¶15 We begin with jurisdiction. Sex-change petitions quintessentially ask for a change in a person's legal status or identification. We have "judicial power" to adjudicate sex-change petitions because they seek changes to a petitioner's legal status or identification, and such "function[ ] w[as] intended by the framers of our constitution to be included in the constitutional grant to the judiciary." In re Gestational Agreement , 2019 UT 40, ¶ 13, 449 P.3d 69. And so, we have jurisdiction to...

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