Since 2019, Reed Smith has been on the frontlines fighting the unconstitutional Pennsylvania law preventing people convicted of felonies from changing their names. The statute and a decade-old felony conviction had appeared to stand in the way of a legal name change for client Monae Alvarado, a transgender woman. However, following a hearing on December 7, Judge Sierra Thomas Street of the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia granted the petition for Alvarado to change her name.
“We presented arguments and expert testimony to demonstrate the unconstitutionality of the current statute, and we are pleased that the judge granted our petition,” said Patrick Yingling, partner at Reed Smith, who argued the case pro bono. “We believe that the felony bar does not withstand constitutional scrutiny. The impact on people like Monae, who have legitimate reasons for seeking a name change but are banned from obtaining one, is just devastating.”
Currently, Pennsylvania’s name change statute bars people with certain felony convictions from ever changing their names in court at any point in their lives. People with other felony convictions, such as Monae Alvarado, cannot change their names in court until at least two years have passed after they have finished their sentence. In addition to the name change petitions, Reed Smith and TLDEF attorneys filed a brief asking the court to hold that the law is inconsistent with Pennsylvania’s constitution. The brief also included an expert declaration outlining the harms of restricting transgender people from legally changing their names.
Expert witness Dr. Ayden Scheim explained to the court that Alvarado’s experience is shared by many transgender people across the United States and Canada. “The vast majority – 84 percent – of respondents to a 2019 study I undertook of 2,873 transgender Canadians reported that they had avoided public spaces or situations due to fears of being harassed or outed, and in the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 36 percent had a negative experience when presenting identification documents that did not align with their gender presentation,” Dr. Scheim said.
Dr. Scheim explained that transgender women of color with criminal convictions already struggle to find work and housing – the wrong name on their IDs makes that struggle even harder, and this doesn’t help anyone. It can even put lives at risk. So far, in 2021 alone, at least four transgender people have been murdered in Pennsylvania.