Amy Coney Barrett Condemns Purdue University’s ‘Fundamentally Unfair’ Adjudication of Sexual Assault Claims
John and Jane, two students in Purdue University’s Navy ROTC program, began dating in the fall of 2015 and had consensual sex 15 to 20 times. According to John, Jane’s behavior became increasingly erratic, culminating in a suicide attempt he witnessed that December. They broke up in January 2016, after John tried to get Jane help by reporting her suicide attempt to two resident assistants and an adviser.
Three months later, in the midst of the university’s s Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Jane alleged that John had sexually assaulted her on two occasions. Those charges ultimately led Purdue, a state university in West Lafayette, Indiana, to suspend John for a year, forcing him to resign from ROTC and ending his plans for a career in the Navy. The process that led to those results, Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett concluded in a 2019 opinion for a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, “fell short of what even a high school must provide to a student facing a days-long suspension.”
The case, which Ben McDonald covered here last year, illustrates the extent to which universities, responding to a 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter from the U.S. Department of Education, created procedures that effectively presumed the guilt of students charged with sexual assault. That letter warned university officials that their handling of such cases would be scrutinized under Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs that receive federal funding. The department broadened the definition of “sexual harassment,” required schools to assess charges based on a “preponderance of the evidence” (meaning they are more likely than not to be true) rather than a stricter standard, and encouraged other short cuts by universities keen to maintain federal funding.
The upshot was that many students facing sexual assault charges did not receive anything resembling due process. The plaintiff in this case, identified in court documents as “John Doe,” was accused of digitally penetrating his then-girlfriend, identified as “Jane Doe,” while she was asleep and, on another occasion, groping her over her clothes, also while she was asleep. John denied both accusations, citing Jane’s continued friendly texts with him after both alleged incidents, noting that a roommate who was present on one of those occasions denied that anything like what Jane described had happened, and offering the testimony of character witnesses. He also suggested that Jane was angry with him because he reported her attempted suicide, an intervention that had precipitated their breakup.
But John never really got a chance to present a defense, because university officials had already made up their minds. Barrett’s description of what happened is based on John’s account, because at this stage of the case she was deciding whether he had stated legal claims against the university that he should be allowed to pursue, assuming the facts he alleged were true. But most of the facts, especially as they relate to the university’s biased process for investigating sexual assault allegations, are undisputed.
Although Jane never filed a formal complaint and never testified about the alleged assaults, the university pursued the case on her behalf. John said he first heard about the allegations when he received a letter from Katherine Sermersheim, Purdue’s dean of students and a Title IX coordinator. At that point, Barrett notes, “John was suspended from the Navy ROTC, banned from all buildings where Jane had classes, and barred from eating in his usual dining hall because Jane also us
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