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Judge in Missouri transgender care lawsuit agrees to step aside but decries 'gamesmanship'

MO State Supreme Court Building
The Missouri State Supreme Court Building

ST. LOUIS (AP) — A judge agreed Friday to step aside in a lawsuit challenging a new Missouri law restricting gender-affirming health care for minors, despite what he called “gamesmanship” from the plaintiffs' lawyers for requesting a new judge.

St. Louis Circuit Judge Steven Ohmer was appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court to preside over the lawsuit that seeks to overturn the Missouri law. The lawsuit was filed in July by the ACLU of Missouri, Lambda Legal and the law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner on behalf of families of three transgender minors, a St. Louis health care center and LGBTQ+ organizations.

Ohmer said at a hearing that assigning a new judge will delay resolution of the case, possibly into next year. It's unclear when the state Supreme Court will make the appointment.

“And the wheels of justice keep spinning in the mud,” Ohmer said.

Ohmer in August denied the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction to block the new law, days before it went into effect. ACLU of Missouri attorney Tony Rothert didn't say if that was why a change was sought, but he said the court rules are explicit: Plaintiffs have a right to a new judge if requested in a timely manner.

Missouri Solicitor General Josh Divine argued that the plaintiffs already had been given a new judge — without asking. Plaintiffs' lawyers said early on that if the case was assigned to Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green, they'd seek a new judge. Green was, indeed, assigned the case, then immediately recused himself.

But Ohmer ruled that Green's proactive action didn't prohibit the plaintiffs from exercising their right to a change in judge.

“What this case comes down to is much posturing and gamesmanship,” Ohmer said.

Missouri is among several states that this year have enacted new restrictions on transgender care for minors. Lawsuits have been filed in several states.

The Missouri law, which took effect Aug. 28, outlaws puberty blockers, hormones and gender-affirming surgery for minors. Though it allows exceptions for those who were already taking those medications before the law kicked in, the fallout was fast: Both the Washington University Transgender Center at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and University of Missouri Health Care in Columbia stopped prescribing puberty blockers and hormones for minors for the purpose of gender transition.

Lambda Legal attorney Nora Huppert has called the law not only “harmful and cruel,” but “life-threatening” for young people seeking gender-affirming care. Research suggests transgender youth and adults are prone to stress, depression and suicidal thoughts, but there’s less evidence that treatment with hormones or surgery resolves those issues.

Republican Gov. Mike Parson signed the bill in June. He said the state “must protect children from making life-altering decisions that they could come to regret in adulthood once they have physically and emotionally matured.”

Health care providers who violate the transgender health care law face the possibility of having their medical licenses revoked. Beyond that, any provider who prescribes puberty blockers and hormones to minors faces potential lawsuits from those patients for as long as 15 years after they turn 21.

If the patients win, physicians must pay at least $500,000 in punitive damages and as much as $1.5 million in total damages.