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

Airman reaches deal to block discharge under DADT

Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho — An Idaho aviator has reached an agreement with the U.S. Air Force to temporarily block his discharge under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law that bars openly gay and lesbian military members from service.

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network says an agreement reached Monday, Aug. 16 prevents the Air Force from discharging Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach until a judge can consider its request for a court order to stop his ouster from the military.

The network, an advocacy group seeking equal treatment of gays in the military, is representing Fehrenbach in his legal fight to keep his job and last week filed a federal lawsuit in Idaho.

The lawsuit asks for an order to stop the Air Force from discharging Fehrenbach until a full hearing can be scheduled. It also wants the law declared unconstitutional.

—  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