Witt, DOD reach settlement in DADT case

Major Margaret Witt

DOD agrees to allow major to retire with full benefits; DOJ won’t appeal her 9th Circuit victory

LISA KEEN | Keen News Service
lisakeen@me.com

The ACLU of Washington State announced Tuesday, May 10, that Air Force Reserve nurse Margaret Witt has reached a final settlement with the Department of Defense in her highly publicized litigation to avoid discharge under “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

According to an ACLU press release, the DOD has agreed to allow Witt to retire with full benefits and the Department of Justice will drop its appeal of a federal district court ruling in her favor.

Last September, Judge Ronald Leighton of the U.S. District Court for Western Washington ruled that Witt’s sexual orientation did not negatively impact her unit’s morale or unit cohesion and that her discharge under DADT violated her Fifth Amendment right to due process.

“I am proud to have played a role in bringing about the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” Witt said in a statement released by the ACLU. “I am so pleased that the tens of thousands of lesbians and gays who have served their country honorably will be able to serve openly.”

The Witt v. U.S. case has been a high-profile one, and the subject of debate on the floor of the Senate and in the confirmation hearing of the U.S. Supreme Court’s newest member, Elena Kagan. It was just one of several cases that applied pressure to Congress to repeal DADT before a federal court ordered it to do so immediately.

After several failed attempts, Congress did pass legislation to repeal DADT and President Obama signed it last December. DOD officials said earlier this year they expect to satisfy a necessary certification requirement — certifying that repeal can take place without affecting military readiness — about mid-summer this year.

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which has been working to pass repeal, congratulated Witt and the ACLU on their “stunning victory.”

“Today’s events underscore once again the unjust nature of this discriminatory chapter in American history,” SLDN Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis said in a written statement. “Her case established a new rule of law in the Ninth Circuit, and her voice and story were pivotal in building support for the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ This is not just a victory for Major Witt, it’s a victory for justice and for service members everywhere.”

Witt, 46, joined the Air Force in 1987 and moved quickly up the ranks, becoming a major in 1999, working with a unit that provided airborne intensive care units for wounded military personnel.

She received a number of commendations and even appeared on a recruitment poster.

Witt was discharged in 2006 for having acknowledged she had a relationship with a woman in Tacoma where Witt was based.

In the initial round of her lawsuit, she won — at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals level— the right to a trial on the merits of her individual discharge under DADT.

During Witt’s trial, DOJ attorneys put on witnesses to discuss Witt’s relationship with a married civilian woman and argued that it was not just Witt’s sexual orientation but also her adulterous behavior to blame for her discharge. The government also noted that Witt had told at least two colleagues she was gay, thus putting them in an awkward position of either keeping silent to protect her or informing superior officers of Witt’s being in violation of the DADT law.

© 2011 Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

—  John Wright

Justice Department appeals lesbian’s reinstatement to Air Force

Witt to serve openly while legal, political battles over DADT continue

GENE JOHNSON | Associated Press

SEATTLE — A lesbian flight nurse discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy barring gays from serving openly can rejoin the Air Force Reserve, even as the government appeals a judge’s ruling that returned her to the job, her lawyers said Tuesday, Nov. 23.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton ruled in September that former Maj. Margaret Witt must be reinstated because her dismissal advanced no legitimate military goals and thus violated her constitutional rights.

The Justice Department appealed that ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday, its deadline for doing so.

But government lawyers did not ask the appeals judges to freeze the lower court’s ruling while the appeal proceeds — and Witt’s lawyers said that means she can be reinstated.

“I am thrilled to be able to serve in the Air Force again,” Witt said in a written statement released by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state. “The men and women in the unit are like family members to me, and I’ve been waiting a long time to rejoin them.”

Witt was suspended in 2004 and subsequently discharged after the Air Force learned she had been in a long-term relationship with a civilian woman. She sued to get her job back.

Leighton initially upheld her firing, but in 2008 a three-judge 9th Circuit panel said military members could not be discharged under “don’t ask” unless their dismissal furthered military goals such as troop morale or unit cohesion. It sent the case back to Leighton, who ruled that Witt’s firing actually hurt morale in her unit.

If Witt is reinstated, she would be serving openly at a time when the military’s policy on gays is in disarray. President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates want to end the ban, but say it should be done through Congress, not the courts. A federal judge in California has declared the 1993 “don’t ask, don’t tell” law unconstitutional — a ruling the Justice Department is also appealing — and in the meantime, the Pentagon has issued new guidelines that have drastically cut the numbers of gays being dismissed under the policy.

The Pentagon plans to release a monthslong study Tuesday, Nov. 30 on how lifting the gay service ban would affect the armed forces.

The Justice Department did not immediately say why it did not seek a stay of Leighton’s ruling. The Air Force Reserve at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle, where Witt was based, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

“It’s indicative of the effort the White House is making to thread the needle on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,”’ said Chris Neff, deputy executive director of the Palm Center, a pro-repeal think tank based at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “They’re holding the line that they need to continue to appeal these, but they are taking an extra measure to address this policy and try to make it moot. This is the first White House that has really made an effort to keep gays in the military.”

Despite being excited to rejoin the Air Force, Witt said she was disappointed the government was appealing at all.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the department was simply defending the law, as it historically does when acts of Congress are challenged. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs insisted that the appeal shows why it’s important for the Senate to repeal the “misguided policy” quickly — before a new Congress takes over, with a slimmer Democratic majority in the Senate.

“This filing in no way diminishes the president’s — and his administration’s — firm commitment to achieving a legislative repeal of DADT this year,” Gibbs said in an e-mailed statement.

“Don’t ask” prohibits the military from asking about the sexual orientation of service members, but allows the discharge of those who acknowledge being gay or are discovered to be engaging in homosexual activity.

—  John Wright

Former colleagues testify for lesbian flight nurse discharged from Air Force under DADT

GENE JOHNSON | Associated Press

TACOMA, Washington — A lesbian flight nurse discharged from the Air Force under the government’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military was an excellent officer whose sexuality never caused a problem in her unit, former colleagues told a federal judge Monday, Sept. 13.

Former Maj. Margaret Witt is seeking reinstatement to the Air Force Reserve in a closely watched case that “don’t ask, don’t tell” critics hope will lead to a second major legal victory this month. The trial began just days after a federal judge in California declared the policy unconstitutional.

Witt was suspended in 2004 and honorably discharged after the Air Force received a complaint from a civilian about her sexuality.

The first witness in her case, retired Master Sgt. James Schaffer, testified that Witt was exceedingly competent and said her dismissal was so unfair, it was part of the reason he retired in 2007.

“It was a rather dishonorable act on the part of the Air Force,” Schaffer said. “It should not be about what you are, but who you are.”

Witt’s case has already led to one crucial ruling — a 2008 holding by a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel that the military cannot discharge people under “don’t ask, don’t tell” unless it shows that the firing is necessary to further military goals such as unit cohesion. The case has returned to federal court in Tacoma for U.S. District Judge Ronald B. Leighton to determine whether Witt’s dismissal met that standard.

The 1993 law prohibits the military from asking about the sexual orientation of service members, but allows the discharge of those who acknowledge being gay or are discovered to be engaging in homosexual activity. Last week, U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips in Los Angeles determined the policy was an unconstitutional violation of the due process and free speech rights of gays and lesbians.

While Phillips’ ruling has no effect on the legal issues in Witt’s case, gay rights activists believe a victory — and Witt’s reinstatement — could help build momentum for repealing the policy. The Senate could soon take up a House-approved defense bill that includes a repeal.

Witt sat in the courtroom Monday amid her supporters, including Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, a fighter pilot from Idaho who is fighting his own discharge by the U.S. Air Force.

Peter Phipps, a Justice Department lawyer representing the Air Force, insisted during his opening statement that Witt’s conduct necessitated her firing. That included a long-term relationship with a civilian woman, an affair with a married woman and two earlier relationships with fellow servicewomen, Witt acknowledged in a May deposition.

A 2004 e-mail from the married woman’s husband to the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. John Jumper, prompted the investigation into Witt’s sexuality. Witt remains in a relationship with that woman, whose husband divorced her.

“By committing adultery, she compromised her integrity and her ability to lead,” Phipps said. “Plaintiff set an example of a disregard for Air Force policies.”

Witt’s discharge therefore eliminated a risk to unit cohesion and morale, he added. He said the support she has received from colleagues is irrelevant; the law’s constitutionality doesn’t depend on the views of her friends.

Furthermore, the military cannot handle discipline by referendum, because that would lead to uneven application of the law, Phipps said.

Witt acknowledged in her deposition the extramarital affair was not consistent with good “officership.” She also said she told two members of her unit about her orientation — forcing them to choose between loyalty to Witt and Air Force policy, the Air Force argues.

Former colleagues who testified Monday disagreed that Witt’s firing accomplished anything — especially because it came during a shortage of flight nurses.

“We were at war at the time,” said Lt. Col. Vincent Oda. “It was the loss of an able flight nurse is what that was.”

The court also heard from other service members discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” One, former Army Sgt. Darren Manzella, said that when his superiors first investigated him, he gave them pictures of himself and his boyfriend kissing to make it clear he didn’t want to hide anything.

The result of that initial inquiry? “No evidence” of homosexuality, Manzella said. He served almost two more years before the Army kicked him out in 2008.

One of Witt’s lawyers, Sarah Dunne of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state, said in her opening statement that the McChord Air Force Base aeromedical evacuation squadron with which Witt served welcomed gays and lesbians, and it was her dismissal — not her orientation — that caused problems in the unit.

Schaffer, the retired master sergeant, said he went on hundreds of flights with Witt, including several missions to evacuate ill or wounded Americans from the Middle East and Afghanistan. Witt received a standing ovation when she showed up at his retirement party in 2007, he said.

Dunne said Witt received glowing performance reviews that attested to her nursing ability and leadership, even one that was written in 2005, after her suspension.

Her suspension came less than a year before she would have earned her full pension.

—  John Wright

Lesbian seeks reinstatement to Air Force; DADT opponents hope for another big legal victory

GENE JOHNSON | Associated Press

SEATTLE — Opponents of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy against gays serving in the military were hoping for another major legal victory as a federal trial began Monday, Sept. 13 over whether to reinstate a lesbian flight nurse discharged from the Air Force Reserve.

The trial comes just days after a federal judge in California declared “don’t ask, don’t tell” an unconstitutional violation of the due process and free speech rights of gays and lesbians. While the ruling does not affect the legal issues in the case of former Maj. Margaret Witt, gay rights activists believe a victory — and her reinstatement — could help build momentum for repealing the policy.

“There’s already political momentum to do something to repeal this unfair statute,” said Aaron Caplan, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who is on Witt’s legal team. “Judicial opinions from multiple jurisdictions saying there’s a constitutional problem with this ought to encourage Congress to act more swiftly.”

Witt was a member of a squadron based at McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma when she was suspended in 2004 and honorably discharged. She challenged the constitutionality of her dismissal, and a federal appeals court panel ruled in 2008 that the military could not discharge service members for being gay unless it proved that the firing furthered military readiness.

The case was sent back to U.S. District Court in Tacoma for Judge Robert Leighton to determine whether Witt’s firing met that standard. Several of Witt’s former colleagues are expected to testify that she was an excellent nurse, and it was her dismissal — not her sexual orientation — that caused morale problems in the unit.

Justice Department lawyers representing the Air Force note that the case has put them in the position of defending a law neither the president nor the department itself believes is good policy. Defense Secretary Robert Gates also favors repealing the 1993 law, which prohibits the military from asking about the sexual orientation of service members but allows the discharge of those who acknowledge being gay or are discovered to be engaging in homosexual activity.

Government lawyers nevertheless insist Witt’s firing was justified — and that the panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did not know the extent of her conduct when it sided with her in 2008. That conduct included a long-term relationship with a civilian woman, an affair with a woman who was married at the time and two earlier relationships with fellow servicewomen, Witt acknowledged in a deposition in May.

It was a 2004 e-mail from the husband of the married woman to the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. John Jumper, that prompted the investigation into Witt’s sexuality.

Witt acknowledged the extramarital affair was not consistent with good “officership.” She also said she told two members of her unit about her orientation — forcing them to choose between loyalty to Witt and Air Force policy, the Air Force argues.

For those reasons, it says, Witt’s firing did further military goals, even if 19 current and former members of Witt’s unit have submitted declarations saying they had no problem serving with her.

“Those co-workers are not military commanders, and the military cannot operate by a unit referendum process in which disciplinary policies and outcomes are determined by the individual opinions of a few unit members,” Justice Department attorney Peter J. Phipps wrote in a court filing.

The Air Force also says Witt can’t be reinstated because she no longer meets Air Force nursing requirements, something Witt’s attorneys dispute.

Witt’s attorneys, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, say that it is the Air Force’s burden to prove that her reinstatement would be a detriment to unit cohesion. And, ACLU attorney Sarah Dunne says, the Air Force has provided no such evidence.

Gen. Charles E. Stenner Jr., an expert witness for the government, said in a deposition that he didn’t know if Witt’s reinstatement would negatively affect military functions, and the current commander of Witt’s unit, Col. Janette Moore-Harbert, acknowledged having no evidence to that effect.

The trial is expected to last seven days. Meanwhile, the Senate could take up a defense bill passed by the House that includes a provision to end “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

—  John Wright