A federal court in Washington State on Friday ruled that a lesbian Air Force officer discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” should be reinstated into the U.S. armed forces because the government cannot prove that her presence in the military undermined unit cohesion.
In the case of Witt v. Air Force, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton determined that Maj. Margaret Witt, who was discharged in 2006 after serving in the Air Force for 19 years as a flight nurse, should be allowed back into the military “at the earliest possible moment.”
“The Court concludes that ['Don't Ask, Don't Tell'], when applied to Major Margaret Witt, does not further the government’s interest in promoting military readiness, unit morale and cohesion,” the decision states.
Leighton rules that Witt’s expulsion under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” violates her due process rights under the Fifth Amendment.
In a statement provided by the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented her in the lawsuit, Witt said she’s “thrilled” with the decision and she “appreciate[s] the Court’s belief in the professionalism of the military.”
“Many people forget that the U.S. military is the most diverse workforce in the world — we are extremely versed in adaption,” Witt said. “Thousands of men and women who are gay and lesbian honorably serve this country in our military. Wounded personnel never asked me about my sexual orientation. They were just glad to see me.”
Unlike the decision recently reached by a California federal court in the case of Log Cabin v. United States, the decision in the Witt case doesn’t overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The order is strictly applied to Witt and only allows her to return to her duties in the Air Force.
The U.S. Justice Department didn’t immediately respond to Blade’s request for comment on the ruling or whether the Obama administration would appeal the decision to a higher court.
In 2008, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case to the district court in Washington, overturning an earlier decision by the court. The appellate court ordered the lower court to determine whether the U.S. military could prove Witt’s presence in the Air Force harmed unit cohesion before discharging her.
In six days of testimony that took place earlier this month, several witnesses spoke in favor of Witt and her performance in the Air Force. The decision on Friday states that the evidence presented showed Witt was an “exemplary officer.”
“Major Witt’s approach to the fact-finding mission of this Court was to present testimony of members and former members of her unit … who testified persuasively that serving with Margaret Witt and other known or suspected gay and lesbian service members did not adversely affect unit morale and cohesion,” the decision states. “To the contrary, it was Major Witt’s suspension and ultimate discharge that caused a loss of morale throughout the squadron.”
Doug NeJaime, a gay law professor at Loyola Law School, said the court’s decision isn’t surprising considering the level of scrutiny mandated by the Ninth Circuit.
He added the decision sets “a really good precedent for potential other discharges” that would require the government, at least in the Ninth Circuit, to continue the burden of showing that discharging a service member under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is in the best interest of unit cohesion and morale.
NeJaime said the Obama administration could appeal the decision to the Ninth Circuit, but added he thinks an appeal is unlikely because the order only applies to one person.
“The Justice Department is in a difficult position, and you would think that since this only applies to Maj. Witt, it might make sense not to see this any further and just let things end here, which, I think, is probably what we’re going to see happen,” NeJaime said.