On May 26, the Oregon Department of Justice made an unusual decision. The agency withdrew a legal motion that it had filed in a high-profile transgender rights lawsuit.
John Parry, who teaches civil procedure at Lewis & Clark Law School, says it's rare for the Department of Justice to withdraw a motion.
"Ordinarily," Parry says, "you figure out if you want to file a motion before you file it with the court, not afterwards."
This about-face was especially awkward because it occurred on a sensitive political and civil rights issue. A transgender state prison inmate sued the state for denying her hormone therapy and the DOJ's motion supported that denial.
The denial and the state's motion flew in the face of Gov. Kate Brown's image as a champion of transgender rights—and placed further strain on her relationship with Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, whose agency filed the brief. (Disclosure: Rosenblum is married to Richard Meeker, a co-owner of WW's parent company.)
Three sources familiar with the situation tell WW that the motion angered LGBTQ advocates, who expressed their outrage to the governor's office, who in turn expressed its displeasure to Rosenblum's agency.
The motion came as a surprise to Brown, who is responsible for the the Department of Corrections.
A Department of Justice spokeswoman says Rosenblum didn't see the motion before it was filed by her agency, and doesn't support it.
The resulting flap raises questions about the communication between the governor and the attorney general, who are both Democrats and lawyers but have previously differed on legal issues—most notably the state's strategy for settling long-running litigation with Oracle.
Oregon is one of the nation's leaders on LGBTQ rights issues, earning top marks from the Human Rights Commission. That's been especially true since 2015, when Brown became the nation's first openly bisexual governor.
On May 31 of this year, Brown signed a transgender rights bill, removing the requirement that changes to someone's name or gender identity must be posted publicly by the courts. Oregon became the second state in the nation to do so, following California.
"As a fundamental human right, government has no business dictating personal identity," Brown said at the bill signing.
But for more than eight months, the state has, in effect, been dictating Michelle Wright's personal identity.
Wright, 25, a transgender inmate at Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla, says the Oregon Department of Corrections unjustly denied her requests for hormone therapy, which she was seeking to continue her transition from male to female. Wright began wearing woman's clothing and identifying herself as a woman at 16.
Wright was arrested in 2013 and convicted of attempted armed robbery and sentenced to five years in prison. On Oct. 17, 2016 she filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Portland, claiming that the denial of hormone therapy deprived her of medically necessary care.
Hormone therapy is usually one of the first steps transgender people take in their transition—and often precedes gender reassignment surgery.
State provision of hormone therapy to transgender inmates has become a national civil rights issue, although most departments of corrections, like Oregon, deny those requests. Inmates in Nebraska, Indiana, Florida and Missouri have all filed similar lawsuits. (A California inmate became the first to receive state-funded sex-reassignment surgery in January.)
The Obama administration was sympathetic to such claims. In April 2015, the U.S. Justice Department filed a brief in a case backing a lawsuit filed by a Georgia inmate. The feds said the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, requires "individualized assessment and care for gender dysphoria."
On May 17, records show, Gov. Brown and Attorney General Rosenblum met. They discussed Wright's case, which civil rights advocates were pushing the state to settle.
Yet, two days later, on May 19, DOJ lawyers James Smith and Shannon Vincent, filed a motion in Wright's case, arguing that Wright does not have a constitutional right to hormone therapy. (Neither lawyer replied to a request for comment.)
Amy Herzfeld-Copple, co-executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, the state's leading LGBTQ rights organization, said BRO was surprised by the state's argument.
"We were disappointed," Herzfeld-Copple says. "We felt like their position would ultimately deny life-saving care to transgender folks in Oregon prisons and jails."
BRO officials had earlier met with Rosenblum, encouraging her to settle the case, and received no indication her agency would oppose its wishes.
When BRO learned of DOJ's May 19 motion, the group contacted Brown's office to express its alarm, BRO spokeswoman Diane Goodwin says.
A few days later, DOJ abruptly withdrew the motion. The move, sources say, came after the governor's office expressed its displeasure to Rosenblum's office.
Kristina Edmunson, Rosenblum's spokeswoman, would only say that Rosenblum and her executive staff had not seen the brief before it was filed. She did not comment further by press deadlines.
Bryan Hockaday, a spokesman for Brown, declined comment.
Beyond the legal machinations, Wright's case underlines the trauma transgender inmates may endure. Currently, figures show there are 42 transgender inmates in Oregon prisons.
Wright has "repeatedly attempted suicide and engaged in acts of self-harm, including three attempts at auto-castration over the last year," according to her initial complaint. In one incident, Wright tied a band around her scrotum to cut off its blood supply. "The band was not discovered for five days resulting in trauma and infection to her genitalia," her complaint says.
The treatment Wright is seeking costs $100 a month, according to the Transgender Law Center.
Lake Perriguey, a Portland civil rights lawyer, says Wright's case should be seen as a fight for equality.
"People in wheelchairs weren't always picked up by public transportation," Perriguey says. "It took an activist group who sued, and now every bus in the nation has wheelchair accessibility. At some point, every prison in the nation will have trans competence to understand what their obligations are."
Wright's attorneys and the DOJ lawyers have scheduled a settlement conference for July 31.
WW staff writer Nigel Jaquiss contributed reporting to this story.