Judge to rule this week in Nikki Araguz case

Nikki Araguz

Transgender widow vows appeal if she loses case

JUAN A. LOZANO  |  Associated Press

WHARTON, Texas — The transgender widow of a Texas firefighter will likely learn next week whether his family’s request to nullify their marriage and strip her of any death benefits will be granted, a judge said Friday.

State District Judge Randy Clapp made the announcement after hearing arguments in a lawsuit filed by the family of firefighter Thomas Araguz III, who was killed while battling a blaze last year. The suit argues that his widow shouldn’t get any benefits because she was born a man and Texas doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage.

The widow, Nikki Araguz, said she had done everything medically and legally possible to show that she is female and was legally married under Texas law. She believes that she’s entitled to widow’s benefits.

“I believe the judge is going to rule in my favor,” Araguz said after the court hearing.

The lawsuit seeks control over death benefits and assets totaling more than $600,000, which the firefighter’s family wants to go to his two sons from a previous marriage. Voiding the marriage would prevent Nikki Araguz from receiving any insurance or death benefits or property the couple had together.

Thomas Araguz died while fighting a fire at an egg farm near Wharton, about 60 miles southwest of Houston, in July 2010. He was 30.

His mother, Simona Longoria, filed a lawsuit asking that her son’s marriage be voided. She and her family have said he learned of his wife’s gender history just prior to his death, and after he found out, he moved out of their home and planned to end the marriage.

But Nikki Araguz, 35, has insisted that her husband was aware she was born a man and that he fully supported her through the surgical process to become a woman. She underwent surgery two months after they were married in 2008.

Longoria’s attorney, Chad Ellis, argued that Texas law — specifically a 1999 appeals court ruling that stated chromosomes, not genitals, determine gender — supports his client’s efforts to void the marriage.

The ruling upheld a lower court’s decision that threw out a wrongful death lawsuit filed by a San Antonio woman, Christie Lee Cavazos Littleton, after her husband’s death. The court said that although Littleton had undergone a sex-change operation, she was actually a man, based on her original birth certificate, and therefore her marriage and wrongful death claim were invalid.

Ellis presented medical and school records that he said showed Nikki Araguz was born without female reproductive organs and that she presented herself as a male while growing up and going to school. He also said her birth certificate at the time of her marriage indicated she was a man.

“By law, two males cannot be married in this state,” Ellis told the judge.

Nikki Araguz, who was born in California, did not change her birth certificate to reflect she had become a female until after her husband’s death, said Edward Burwell, one of the attorneys for Thomas Araguz’s ex-wife, Heather Delgado, the mother of his two children.

But one of Nikki Araguz’s attorneys, Darrell Steidley, said that when his client got her marriage license, she presented the necessary legal documents to show she was a female. He also noted changes made in 2009 to the Texas Family Code that allowed people to present numerous alternatives to a birth certificate as the proof of identity needed to get a marriage license. That was an example, he argued, of the state trying to move away from the 1999 appeals court ruling.

The changes in 2009 allowed transgendered people to use proof of their sex change to get a marriage license. The Texas Legislature is currently considering a bill that would prohibit county and district clerks from using a court order recognizing a sex change as documentation to get married.

After the hearing, the firefighter’s family and attorneys for his ex-wife criticized plans by Nikki Araguz to star in a reality television dating show and implied she was only interested in money and fame that the case would bring her.

“That is absurd,” Nikki Araguz said in response. “I’m after my civil equality and the rights that I deserve as the wife of a fallen firefighter.”

If the judge rules against the firefighter’s family in their motion for a summary judgment, the case would then proceed to trial. Araguz said if the judge rules against her, she would appeal, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

—  John Wright

Federal judge declares DADT unconstitutional

READ THE FULL TEXT OF THE RULING

Lisa Keen  |  Keen News Service

A federal judge in California on Thursday declared the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy unconstitutional, saying it violates both the First Amendment rights to free speech and the Fifth Amendment rights to due process in the U.S. constitution.

The 85-page memorandum opinion came in Log Cabin Republicans v. U.S, a six-year-old lawsuit that has received little media attention compared to most other gay-related trials. The bench trial in Riverside, Calif., in July was overshadowed by a much more high-profile challenge of California’s ban on same-sex marriage, in federal court in San Francisco.

U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips presided over a two-week-long trial that began July 13 and included many witnesses testifying about the history of DADT and the injury it has caused. Phillips, 52, was appointed to the federal bench in 1999 by President Bill Clinton, who signed DADT into law in 1993. LCR filed its lawsuit against the policy in 2004.

“As an American, a veteran and an Army reserve officer, I am proud the court ruled that the arcane ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ statute violates the Constitution,” said Log Cabin Republicans Executive Director R. Clarke Cooper.  “Today, the ruling is not just a win for Log Cabin Republican servicemembers, but all American servicemembers.”

The opinion strikes down the 1993 law that bars from the military any servicemember who engages in “homosexual conduct,” has a “propensity” to do so, or even just states that he or she is a “homosexual or bisexual.”

Phillips’ decision, which has not yet been officially “entered,” could include an injunction against further enforcement of DADT by the government but will almost certainly be stayed and appealed to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Phillips granted plaintiffs Log Cabin until Thursday, Sept. 16, to submit a proposed judgment granting an injunction. After that, the Department of Justice will have seven days to respond with objections.

Log Cabin brought the lawsuit on behalf of many of its members who it said are being denied their constitutional rights. The group specifically identified only two members at trial: Alexander Nicholson, a former U.S. Army Human Intelligence officer who was discharged under DADT and now serves as head of Servicemembers United; and John Doe, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves concerned he may face discharge under the policy.

“This is a historic moment and an historic ruling for the gay military community,” Nicholson said in a statement Thursday night. “As the only named injured party in this case, I am exceedingly proud to have been able to represent all who have been impacted and had their lives ruined by this blatantly unconstitutional policy. We are finally on our way to vindication.”

The Department of Justice tried repeatedly to have the lawsuit dismissed, claiming LCR has no legal standing to serve as plaintiffs. It also tried to have the judge decide the case without hearing testimony from LCR’s witnesses. And it tried to have the judge postpone the trial, arguing that Congress has a measure pending that could significantly affect the DADT law.

That measure is still awaiting action in the Senate as part of a Defense spending bill that is likely to see action later this month. There seems little doubt that the judge’s opinion will now be the subject of the debate around that measure. But Judge Phillips refused to delay action on LCR’s lawsuit, noting that the DADT repeal measure — as it is currently worded in Congress — does not guarantee repeal of DADT. Instead, the legislation requires a sign-off procedure involving the president, the secretary of defense, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The likelihood the bill would lead to repeal, said Phillips at trial, is “remote, if not wholly speculative.”

Phillips noted that evidence considered at trial, including three historic studies concerning gays in the military, did not identify any legitimate reasons for barring gays. The 1957 Crittenden Report, she said, “is not evidence that discharge of homosexual servicemembers significantly furthers government interests in military readiness or troop cohesion.” The 1988 PERSEREC Report “generally dismisses traditional objections to service by homosexuals in the military as abstract, intangible, and tradition-bound.” And the 1993 Rand Report concludes, “no empirical evidence exists demonstrating the impact of an openly homosexual servicemember on the cohesion of any military unit.”

Using tables of data to demonstrate a point made at trial by DADT opponent Nathaniel Frank, Phillips showed how the military discharged increasing numbers of servicemembers for homosexuality from 1994 to 2001, but that the number “fell sharply” beginning in 2002 as the U.S. began fighting in Afghanistan. In 2001, according to the data, the military discharged 1,227 people for being gay — the largest number per year since DADT went into effect. But in 2002, the number of discharges dropped to 885. Last year, only 275 were discharged.

She also cited data submitted by Log Cabin Republicans’ attorneys showing the Defense Department often suspended investigations of servicemembers it believed to be gay until after the servicemembers had completed their tour of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. DOD, she noted “deployed servicemembers under investigation … to combat missions or, if they were already so deployed, delayed the completion of the investigation until the end of the deployment.”

“This evidence, in particular, directly undermines any contention that [DADT] furthers the Government’s purpose of military readiness, as it shows [DOD officials] continue to deploy gay and lesbian members of the military into combat, waiting until they have returned before resolving the charges arising out of the suspected homosexual conduct.”

“Taken as a whole,” wrote Phillips, “the evidence introduced at trial shows that the effect of the Act has been, not to advance the Government’s interests of military readiness and unit cohesion, much less to do so significantly, but to harm that interest.“

In her decision, Phillips noted that the 1st Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals addressed a similar case, Cook v. Gates, and came to a different opinion and upheld the law. But Phillips said she found the 1st Circuit’s reasoning “unpersuasive” and noted that she, within a 9th Circuit court, is not bound to follow it.

Phillips, however, indicated she was bound to follow a precedent of her own 9th Circuit, rendered in another challenge to the DADT policy and brought by an Air Force nurse, Margaret Witt, in Seattle. On a preliminary matter in that case, the 9th Circuit ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas recognized a fundamental right to “an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.” Infringement on a fundamental right requires a law to pass a “heightened” or more stringent judicial review.

The Witt v. U.S. case is scheduled for trial beginning Sept. 13 in the U.S. District Court for Tacoma, Wash.

Chad Griffin, president of the American Foundation for Equal Rights which is pressing the case against Proposition 8’s ban on same-sex marriage in California, said the Log Cabin decision “is yet another significant and long-overdue step toward full equality for all Americans.

“It is clear,” said Griffin, “that our nation is moving toward the day when every American will be treated equally under the law, as required by our Constitution.”

Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran and executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said: “We’re pleased by the judge’s decision, but this decision is likely to be appealed and will linger for years. Congress made the DADT law 17 years ago and Congress should repeal it. The Senate will have the opportunity to do just that this month and most Americans think the Senate should seize it.”

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said he hopes the ruling will help spur Congress.

“Today a federal judge affirmed what the vast majority of the American people know to be true — that it’s time for the discriminatory ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law to be sent to the dustbin of history,” Solmonese said. “With this legal victory in hand, Congress is right now in a perfect position to strengthen our national security by ending a law that has discharged thousands of capable service members. With House passage already secured, the Senate can and should vote in the next few weeks to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and allow every qualified man and woman the chance to serve with honor.”

Online editor John Wright contributed to this story.

© 2010 by Keen News Service. All rights reserved.

—  John Wright