Court refuses to suspend lawsuit challenging DADT

LISA LEFF  |  Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court has denied the government’s request to suspend a lawsuit challenging the military’s ban on openly gay servicemembers.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco issued an order Friday, Jan. 28 requiring the Department of Justice to file papers by Feb. 25 arguing why the court should overturn a Southern California trial judge who declared the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy unconstitutional.

Government lawyers asked the 9th Circuit earlier this month to set aside the case because the Pentagon was moving quickly to satisfy the steps Congress outlined last month when it voted to allow the ban’s repeal. A Justice Department spokeswoman said it had no comment Saturday.

The appeals court did not explain in its order why it rejected the request. In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said he expected to finalize the repeal and allow openly gay Americans to join the armed forces before the end of the year.

On Friday, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters that the training of officers and troops the Pentagon has said is a predicate to full repeal would begin in February.

The Log Cabin Republicans, the gay political group whose lawsuit challenging “don’t ask, don’t tell” persuaded District Court Judge Virginia Phillips in September to enjoin the military from enforcing the policy, had opposed the government’s effort to put the case on hold.

R. Clarke Cooper, the group’s president, said Saturday that while he thinks the Pentagon’s efforts are sincere, the case should proceed as long as gay servicemembers still can be discharged.

“We said all along to the government we would drop our case if they would cease all discharges and remove all barriers to open service,” Cooper said.

Cooper, an Army reserve officer, said he knew of at least one service member facing a discharge hearing next month, even as the Pentagon moves forward with its training plan.

“We are not questioning the implementation process. We recognize the need for a deliberative process for implementing proper training materials and guidances for leadership,” he said. “But when you have a servicemember going before a discharge panel, this is kind of a ‘left hand-right hand’ thing that is happening.”

—  John Wright

Log Cabin urges court to sustain DADT case

Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — A gay rights group is asking a federal appeals court in California to keep considering whether a trial judge properly struck down the U.S. military’s ban on gays serving openly in the military.

Lawyers for Log Cabin Republicans filed a brief Monday, Jan. 10 arguing that because the ban has not been lifted, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals needs to maintain its schedule in the government’s challenge to the lower court’s ruling.

It came in response to a Justice Department motion seeking to suspend the case for at least three months. The department faces a Jan. 24 deadline for submitting opening arguments.

Government lawyers say putting the appeal on hold would allow the Pentagon to focus on training troops and other tasks necessary for completing the repeal of the ban.

Congress has agreed to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

—  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

BREAKING: Government to request stay of injunction halting enfocement of DADT

The U.S. Department of Justice was expected to ask a federal judge on Thursday afternoon to allow the military to continue enforcing “don’t ask don’t tell” pending the government’s appeal of a September ruling declaring the policy unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Phillips issued an injunction Tuesday, Oct. 12 ordering the Department of Defense to halt enforcement of DADT worldwide. In September, Phillips ruled that DADT violates servicemembers’ constitutional rights to free speech and due process.

The DOJ plans to appeal Phillips’ ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and on Thursday government lawyers were expected to request a stay of the injunction pending the appeal, according to The Advocate. The appeal must be filed within 60 days.

If Phillips doesn’t grant their request for a stay, DOJ attorneys likely will ask for an emergency stay from the appeals court.

—  John Wright

‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ injunction now up to judge

JULIE WATSON  |  Associated Press

SAN DIEGO — U.S. government lawyers are trying to stop a federal judge from issuing an injunction that would immediately do what President Obama has yet to accomplish so far in his first term: Halt the military’s ban on openly gay troops.

Now it is up to U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Phillips to decide if she is willing to do that.

The White House says the legal filing Thursday, Sept. 23 by the U.S. Department of Justice attorneys in a federal court in Riverside follows government procedure by defending an act of Congress that is being challenged, but it does not detract from the president’s efforts to get ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ repealed.

“This filing in no way diminishes the president’s firm commitment to achieve a legislative repeal of DADT — indeed, it clearly shows why Congress must act to end this misguided policy,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press.

Phillips declared the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy unconstitutional in her ruling Sept. 9 following a three-week, non-jury trial and said she would issue a nationwide order to stop the ban. She asked both sides for input first.

The Log Cabin Republicans, the gay rights organization that filed the lawsuit to stop the ban’s enforcement, wants her to issue an order that would stop the policy from being used to discharge any U.S. military personnel anywhere in the world.

Their attorney, Dan Woods, called the Department of Justice’s objections to the possible injunction hypocritical. He said the administration should be seizing the opportunity to let a judge do what politics has not been able to do.

“It’s sad and disappointing that the administration would file such a document days after it urged Congress to repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,”’ Woods said.

In their court filing Thursday, U.S. Department of Justice attorneys argued the possible move would be “untenable” and that Phillips would be overstepping her bounds by halting a policy under debate in Congress.

Instead, she should limit any injunction to the 19,000 members of the Log Cabin Republicans, which includes current and former military personnel, the lawyers said.

“A court should not compel the executive to implement an immediate cessation of the 17-year-old policy without regard for any effect such an abrupt change might have on the military’s operations, particularly at a time when the military is engaged in combat operations and other demanding military activities around the globe,” federal attorneys said in their objection.

The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy prohibits the military from asking about the sexual orientation of service members. Under the 1993 policy, service men and women who acknowledge being gay or are discovered engaging in homosexual activity, even in the privacy of their own homes off base, are subject to discharge.

In her ruling, Phillips said the policy doesn’t help military readiness and instead has a “direct and deleterious effect” on the armed services by hurting recruiting during wartime and requiring the discharge of service members with critical skills and training.

—  John Wright

Log Cabin asks federal judge to halt DADT

Sides make closing arguments after 2-week trial

JULIE WATSON  |  Associated Press Writer

RIVERSIDE, California — Lawyers for a Republican gay rights organization asked a federal judge Friday, July 23 to issue an injunction halting the military’s ban on openly gay service members.

Government lawyers countered by warning U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips not to overstep her bounds while ruling on the lawsuit by the Log Cabin Republicans.

The exchange came as both sides made closing arguments in the case after a two-week trial.

It was unclear when Phillips would make a ruling on the policy that forbids openly gay personnel in the military. Legal experts say she may hold off to see if Congress is going to repeal the policy.

Attorney Dan Woods, who represents the 19,000-member Republican group, argued the policy violates the constitutional rights of gay military members to free speech, due process and open association.

“Log Cabin Republicans have brought this case to trial to call out the government on the wrong it’s doing on current and future homosexuals who wish to serve their country. We ask you to do them right,” Woods told Phillips.

The case is unique in that it is not based on an individual’s complaint but rather is a sweeping attack on the policy. It is the biggest legal test of the law in recent years.

The trial could not come at a worse time for President Barack Obama, who has criticized the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays since taking office last year but has failed to get Congress to repeal it.

U.S. Department of Justice attorney Paul G. Freeborne said during his closing argument that Woods was asking the judge to go beyond her powers.

“We do not believe the court has the authority to issue a nationwide injunction,” he said.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted May 27 to repeal the policy, and the Senate is expected to take up the issue this summer. In deciding to hear the challenge, Phillips said the “possibility that action by the legislative and executive branches will moot this case is sufficiently remote.”

During the trial, plaintiffs presented seven expert witnesses and six military officers who have been discharged under the policy. Lawyers also submitted remarks by Obama stating “don’t ask, don’t tell” weakens national security.

Woods asked Phillips to impose a permanent injunction that would prevent the policy from being applied not only within the U.S. but anywhere in the world.

“Even if ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ once did further an important government interest, it no longer does so,” Woods told the judge.

Government attorneys have said Congress should decide the fate of the policy — not a federal judge. They presented only the policy’s legislative history in their defense.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” prohibits the military from asking about the sexual orientation of service members but requires discharge of those who acknowledge being gay or are discovered to be engaging in homosexual activity, even in the privacy of their own homes off base.

The Log Cabin Republicans, which includes former and current members of the military, said more than 13,500 service members have been fired under the law since 1994.

Testimony from former service members ranged from a decorated Air Force officer who was let go after his peers snooped through his personal e-mail in Iraq, to a sailor whose supervisor concluded he was gay after he refused to visit prostitutes.

Woods argued the policy harms military readiness and unit cohesion by getting rid of talented people. He pointed out the military has relaxed its standards and now allows convicted felons to make up for a shortage of personnel while the country is at war.

“In other words, our military will give a convicted felon a gun but will not give a gay guy a typewriter,” he said.

Freeborne told the court Obama’s statements criticizing the policy underscored that the decision should be made in the political arena.

“What you’ve essentially heard is a policy debate, a debate that should occur in Congress, not before a court,” he told the judge.

Phillips told Freeborne his argument overlooks the fact that the court “is directed to look at the effect of the statute.”

—  John Wright