Another avenue for ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will open up next week with the start of a trial over the constitutionality of the ban preventing openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people from serving in the U.S. armed forces.
On Tuesday, the U.S. District Court in the Central District of California will begin to hear testimony in what’s expected to be a two-week long trial in the case of Log Cabin v. United States. Presiding over the trial will be U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Phillips.
The case challenges the constitutionality of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on the basis that it violates the due process and freedom of speech rights of openly LGBT service members.
R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said his organization is pursuing the lawsuit — initially filed in 2004 — as part of an effort to “conduct multiple operations to achieve victory” in ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as with a military campaign.
“We are lobbying Republican members of Congress, have an active court case going to trial next week and are consulting with the Department of Defense,” he said.
The case is reaching its trial at the same time legislation is advancing through Congress that could put an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Phillips agreed last week to hold the trial. The lawsuit is proceeding despite multiple requests to stay the case from the Obama administration, which is defending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in court.
Representing Log Cabin during the trial is Dan Woods, an attorney for White & Case LLP. He said his plan involves presenting a variety of evidence.
“It is evident from the evidence we’re going to put on that it is applied selectively, it is applied more in times of peace than in times of war,” Woods said. “It is quite clearly the case that most other countries with militaries comparable to ours allow homosexuals to serve and have no problems with lifting bans on homosexuals serving.”
Woods said seven expert witnesses at the trial will offer different perspectives on the harm that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has caused.
Among those who are set to testify are Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a think-tank on gays in the military, and Nathaniel Frank, a former senior fellow at the Palm Center who’s now the senior strategist at the LGBT Movement Advancement Project. Both declined to comment for this article.
Woods also said five service members discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will offer testimony during the trial.
“The thrust of their testimony is not that they individually were unfairly discharged, but that their discharges had nothing to do with their performance or nothing to do with the so-called purposes of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” he said.
Among the former service members slated to testify is Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemebers United and a gay former linguist for the U.S. Army who was discharged in 2002 under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Nicholson, who’s named as one of the parties in the lawsuit, said the trial has been thus far “unusually successful” and noted that the administration’s attempts “to derail the case have so far failed.”
“Because of my public role as a party to this case, my testimony will likely focus on the factors that make me eligible to bring a cause of action challenging this law, including how this law has harmed me personally,” he said.
Also set to offer testimony during the trial is Mike Almy, a gay former Air Force communications officer who was discharged in 2006 and testified before the Senate on the issue.
Almy said Log Cabin had asked him to be a witness during the trial, but noted that he didn’t want to comment on the specifics of the case before the trial begins.
“I’m honored to help tear down this law that has ruined tens of thousands of careers and weakened our national security,” he said. “It is past time our nation catch up with the dozens of other nations that have lifted their bans on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military.”
Woods said other evidence that the plaintiffs will submit includes statements from President Obama saying the law weakens national security.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Freeborne will represent the Obama administration in court. Woods said he was told the administration won’t present any witnesses during the trial or any evidence other than the congressional testimony leading to the enactment of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1993.
A spokesperson from the Justice Department deferred to the administration’s earlier filings in the case in response to a Blade inquiry about how the administration will defend “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in court.
Woods said he’s “optimistic” that the plaintiffs in the case “will do well and win” the lawsuit. He noted Phillips determined that the heightened scrutiny from the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Witt v. Air Force in 2008 would apply in the case.
Woods said the application of this precedent will “have a major impact” on the case because the government would have to show it’s advancing an important interest with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Additionally, he said the administration would have to prove the intrusion of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on LGBT people furthers that interest and is necessary for that interest.
“I don’t think the government can prove that and I think we can show that the government cannot meet that standard by the evidence we intend to put on,” he said.
Despite his optimism, Woods said he couldn’t offer a timeline for how long the case would need to proceed. He noted that Phillips will need to take “a little while” to write up her ruling following the completion of the trial.
“If we do win, we’re going to ask to declare this law unconstitutional and to enjoin the government from enforcing it ever again,” Woods said.