BREAKING: Government seeks emergency stay of ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ ruling from appeals court

The U.S. Department of Justice earlier today asked a federal appeals court for an emergency stay of a district judge’s order halting enforcement of “don’t ask don’t tell,” Politico reports.

DOJ attorneys have asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to rule on the request by tonight.

In other words, if you’re gay and you want to enlist in the military, we’d suggest you hurry up and do it.

Here’s the full text of the emergency stay request:

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—  John Wright

Is Greg Abbott going to sit idly by while a federal court throws out Texas’ gay marriage ban?

Greg Abbott

Ten states have submitted a brief opposing same-sex marriage to the federal appeals court that will decide whether California’s Proposition 8 violates the U.S. Constitution, The Associated Press reports. But guess what? Texas isn’t one of them.

Anti-gay Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who’s fought to prevent Texas courts from recognizing same-sex marriage even for the limited purpose of divorce, has failed to get involved in a case that could ultimately result in the state’s marriage ban being thrown out:

Former Utah Sen. Scott McCoy, the first openly gay state senator, said Saturday he is not surprised Utah signed on to the opposition brief. If the California ruling against Proposition 8 is upheld, it would follow that Utah’s Amendment 3, which defines marriage as a union exclusively between a man and a woman, is unconstitutional, he said.

Abbott’s failure to get involved is even more surprising given that the brief filed Friday specifically argues that states, and not federal courts, should determine whether to allow same-sex marriage. As you may know, Abbott is all about states’ rights and protecting us from Washington and the evil federal government. So what gives?

We’ve contacted spokesman Jerry Strickland to find out why the Texas AG’s office has chosen to sit this one out, but thus far no response. Stay tuned.

—  John Wright

Prop 8 backers slam trial judge in urging appeal

Marriage ban sponsors call Vaughn Walker’s consideration of evidence ‘egregiously selective and one-sided,’ accuse him of ‘willful’ disregard

LISA LEFF  |  Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Backers of California’s same-sex marriage ban urged a federal appeals court to overturn the trial judge who struck down Proposition 8 by arguing late Friday, Sept. 17 that his consideration of evidence was “egregiously selective and one-sided.”

In written arguments to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, lawyers for the ban’s sponsors alleged that Chief U.S. Judge Vaughn Walker “quite willfully” disregarded a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court precedent and other relevant information when he decided the voter-approved measure was an unconstitutional violation of gay Californians’ civil rights.

“The district court based its findings almost exclusively on an uncritical acceptance of the evidence submitted by Plaintiffs’ experts, and simply ignored virtually everything — judicial authority, the works of eminent scholars past and present in all relevant academic fields, extensive historical and documentary evidence — that ran counter to its conclusions,” they wrote in their 134-page opening brief.

Lawyers for the two couples who successfully sued in Walker’s court are due to file their responses next month. A three-judge 9th Circuit panel has scheduled oral arguments in the case for the first week in December and put Walker’s order requiring the state to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on hold until it renders its own decision.

The court papers filed Friday contained unbridled criticism of Walker’s handling of the first federal trial to examine if the U.S. Constitution prevents states from limiting marriage to a man and a woman.

The appealing attorneys, who called two witnesses compared to 18 for the plaintiffs, asked the 9th Circuit to ignore the trial testimony on which Walker laboriously based his opinion, calling it “unreliable and ultimately irrelevant” to whether Proposition 8 passes constitutional muster.

“Having blinded itself to the genuine animating purpose of marriage, the district court was obliged to offer a different rationale for the institution, presumably one that is entirely indifferent to the gender of the spouses,” they wrote.

They also characterized as defamatory the judge’s conclusion that “moral disapproval” of gay men and lesbians was the main reason voters passed Proposition 8 in November 2008.

“The district court decision is an attack on the many judges and lawmakers and millions of Americans who rightly and reasonably understand that marriage is the unique union of a man and a woman,” said Alliance Defense Fund attorney Brian Raum, who is part of the legal team fighting to uphold Proposition 8. “The Hollywood-funded opposition wants to impose — through a San Francisco court — an agenda that America has repeatedly rejected.”

American Foundation for Equal Rights President Chad Griffin, whose organization organized and funded the lawsuit that led to Walker’s ruling, said he remains confident that it would be upheld in the 9th Circuit and ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The fact remains that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional, as was proven conclusively and unequivocally through a full federal trial,” Griffin said. “There is no getting around the fact that the court’s decision was based on our nation’s most fundamental principles, and that the Constitution does not permit unequal treatment under the law.”

The 1972 case the Proposition 8 lawyers cited in their brief involved a gay couple who sought the right to marry in Minnesota and were rebuffed by that state’s highest court and ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear their appeal.

Before declaring Proposition 8 unconstitutional last month, Walker rejected arguments that he was bound by the 38-year-old case, determining that the high court’s rulings in subsequent gay rights cases were more relevant to his deliberations.

They also cited as evidence that Walker had exceeded the bounds of his authority in a 1982 decision in which the 9th Circuit ruled that a gay U.S. citizen who had obtained a marriage license in Colorado was not eligible to sponsor his foreign-born same-sex partner for immigration purposes.

The pro-Proposition 8 legal team devoted part of their filing to trying to persuade the 9th Circuit that they should be allowed to defend the ballot measure since California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown have refused to appeal the lower court ruling.

Doubts have been raised about whether the coalition of religious and conservative groups that qualified Proposition 8 for the ballot and campaigned for its passage have authority to do so because its members are not responsible for enforcing marriage laws.

Under federal court rules, appealing parties have to demonstrate they have suffered a direct, concrete and individualized harm. The same-sex marriage ban’s sponsors meet those requirements, their lawyers argued Friday, because the California Supreme Court allowed them to defend Proposition 8 in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to get the measure overturned last year and Walker allowed them to defend it again in his court.

Lawyers for a Southern California county whose residents voted overwhelming for Proposition 8 also were due to submit briefs before midnight arguing why they also should be allowed to appeal. The Imperial County Board of Supervisors and the county clerk have maintained they have the legal right to challenge Walker’s ruling even if the ban’s sponsors don’t because counties issue marriage licenses.

If the 9th Circuit dismisses the appeal after deciding that neither the county nor the measure’s proponents have legal standing, Walker’s ruling would become final unless the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to take up the case.

If the high court refuses to intervene, gay couples would be able to marry in California again. An estimated 18,000 couples were married in California before Proposition passed.

—  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

BREAKING: Appeals court grants stay of Prop 8 ruling; gay marriages won’t resume Wednesday

A federal appeals court reportedly has granted a stay of Judge Vaughn Walker’s ruling declaring Proposition 8 unconstitutional. This means same-sex marriages will not resume in California on Wednesday, the deadline for Walker’s previous stay to expire. From the National Center for Lesbian Rights at about 6 p.m. Dallas time on Twitter: “BREAKING: 9th Cir grants stay but puts case on expedited schedule & orders parties to address whether #Prop8 proponents have standing.”

This is a developing story. Stay tuned to Instant Tea for updates.

UPDATE: Some early analysis of the appeals court’s decision courtesy of the Courage Campaign:

Three things:

First, and drastically most importantly, the Court granted the stay. Consequently the thousands of couples who were waiting for the day of equality will have to wait at least a few more months until December.

Second, the Court wants this case to be resolved quickly. Appellants’ opening brief is due in just a month and the hearing will happen on December 6th. This is lightning quick for a Federal Court of Appeals, and it’s a very good sign. The Court understands that this case is important, and it doesn’t want it to linger.

Third, the Court specifically orders the Prop 8 proponents to show why this case should not be dismissed for lack of standing. Here’s a discussion of the standing issue. This is very good news for us. It shows that the Court has serious doubts about whether the Appellants have standing. Even better, the Court is expressing an opinion that its inclination is that the case should be dismissed. That being said, the panel that issued this Order (the motions panel) is not the same panel that will hear that case on the merits. The merits panel will be selected shortly before December 6th and we don’t know the three judges who will be on the merits panel. But this is a very good sign that the appeal could be dismissed on the ground of standing alone.

UPDATE NO. 2: Here’s a statement from the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is representing the same-sex couples challenging Prop 8:

Today the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit set a highly expedited schedule for briefing and argument of proponents’ appeal from the district court’s August 4, 2010 decision striking down California’s Proposition 8 as an unconstitutional violation of the rights of gay and lesbian citizens to due process and equal protection of the law under the Fourteenth Amendment, and it granted proponents’ request to stay the judgment of the district court’s order while the appeal is decided. This means that although Californians who were denied equality by Proposition 8 cannot marry immediately, the Ninth Circuit, like the district court, will move swiftly to address and decide the merits of Plaintiffs’ claims on their merits. Today’s order can be found here:  http://www.equalrightsfoundation.org/legal-filings/9th-circuit-ruling-on-motion-for-stay-pending-appeal/

“We are very gratified that the Ninth Circuit has recognized the importance and pressing nature of this case and the need to resolve it as quickly as possible by issuing this extremely expedited briefing schedule. As Chief Judge Walker found, Proposition 8 harms gay and lesbian citizens each day it remains on the books.   We look forward to moving to the next stage of this case,” said Attorney Theodore B. Olson.

“Today’s order from the Ninth Circuit for an expedited hearing schedule ensures that we will triumph over Prop. 8 as quickly as possible. This case is about fundamental constitutional rights and we at the American Foundation for Equal Rights, our Plaintiffs and our attorneys are ready to take this case all the way through the appeals court and to the United States Supreme Court,” said Chad Griffin, Board President, American Foundation for Equal Rights.

UPDATE NO. 3: We’ve posted a full story here.

—  John Wright

AG Brown, couples urge speedy return to gay marriages

PAUL ELIAS and LISA LEFF  |  Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — The attorneys who successfully sued to strike down California’s same-sex marriage ban have joined state Attorney General Jerry Brown in urging a federal appeals court to quickly allow gay marriages to resume in the state.

Theodore Olson and David Boies, the high-profile lawyers representing two couples, told the appeals court that same-sex couples are being hurt every day Proposition 8 is enforced and should not be denied their civil rights while the ban’s sponsors pursue an appeal of this month’s decision overturning the 2008 measure that was approved in a referendum.

“Indeed, the only harm at issue here is that suffered by Plaintiffs and other gay and lesbian Californians each day that Proposition 8′s discriminatory and irrational deprivation of their constitutional rights remains in force,” the lawyers argued in a filing late Friday, Aug. 13.

Brown, who is the Democratic nominee for governor, said in a separate filing that there was no reason for the 9th Circuit to grant the emergency stay request because state and local agencies would suffer no harm by being required to sanction same-sex marriages. County clerks across the state already are gearing up to do so next week, he said.

The swiftly drafted legal papers came in response to efforts by same-sex marriage opponents to get the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals to block a lower court judge’s ruling striking down Proposition 8 as unconstitutional from taking effect this week. If the 9th Circuit refuses to intervene, it would clear the way for same-sex couples to marry starting after the close of business Wednesday, Aug. 18.

Protect Marriage, the coalition of religious and conservative groups that sponsored Proposition 8, has appealed U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker’s Aug. 4 ruling that found the voter-approved law unconstitutional. After Walker said on Thursday, Aug. 12 that he planned to finalize his ruling on Wednesday at 5 p.m., the group’s lawyers asked the 9th Circuit to prevent any gay marriages while the appeal is pending.

They argued the appeals court should grant an emergency stay “to avoid the confusion and irreparable injury that would flow from the creation of a class of purported same-sex marriages.”

Depending on how the 9th Circuit rules, same-sex couples could get married in California as early as next week or they would have to wait while the appeal works its way through the court and potentially the U.S. Supreme Court as well.

Walker, however, has expressed doubts over whether Protect Marriage has the right to challenge his ruling if neither the attorney general nor the governor elect to do so. Both officials refused to defend Proposition 8 in Walker’s court and have since said they see no reason why gay couples should not be able to get married now.

Although he allowed the group to intervene in the trial, the judge said the appellate court would have to make its own determination that same-sex marriage opponents would be injured if gay couples could wed, a claim Walker explicitly dismissed in his decision invalidating Proposition 8.

The ban’s backers addressed the potential for such a roadblock in their emergency stay request, saying California’s strong citizen initiative law permits ballot measure proponents to defend their interests if state officials will not.

“Proponents may directly assert the state’s interest in defending the constitutionality of its laws, an interest that is indisputably sufficient to confer appellate standing,” they said.

Theodore Boutrous, a lawyer with the legal team representing same-sex couples, said that keeping Protect Marriage from moving forward with an appeal was not necessarily the top priority of the plaintiffs.

“We believe that Chief Judge Walker’s ruling last week on the merits provides a powerful record on appeal, and we want the appellate courts to address the merits of Proposition 8,” Boutrous said. “The standing issue that Chief Judge Walker identified provides another potential weapon in our arsenal that will be part of the appellate arguments.”

California voters passed Proposition 8 as a state constitutional amendment in November 2008, five months after the California Supreme Court legalized same-sex unions and an estimated 18,000 same-sex couples already had married.

Five states — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa — and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage. New York and Maryland recognize those marriages even though same-sex couples can’t wed within their borders. However, the federal government doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, nor do the vast majority of states.

—  John Wright