Three service members who are seeking a return to the U.S. armed forces after being discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are the focus of a new lawsuit filed in a California federal court challenging the constitutionality of the military’s gay ban.
The lawsuit was filed Monday at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California by Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, among the groups leading the fight to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and Morrison & Foerster LLP, a legal firm based in San Diego, Calif.
The three plaintiffs are gay former service members who were expelled from the U.S. armed forces under the military’s gay ban: Mike Almy, an Air Force communications officer who was discharged in 2006; Anthony Loverde, an Air Force technician who was discharged in 2008; and Jason Knight, a Navy translator who was discharged in 2007.
In a Blade interview, Almy said he’s seeking reinstatement into the Air Force because he loves the armed forces and “spent his whole career serving the military” before being discharged after 13 years.
“I obviously don’t miss ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ but that aspect aside, I greatly love and miss the military and just can’t wait to go back in as an officer and a leader,” he said.
The litigation asks the court to employ the Witt standard established by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals as the basis for reinstating the three discharged service members.
The Witt standard came into being in 2008 after the Ninth Circuit ruled in the case of Witt v. Air Force that the U.S. government must show the presence of a gay service member in the armed forces is detrimental to unit cohesion before discharging him or her.
Additionally, the lawsuit asks the California federal court to strike down “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on the grounds that the 1993 law violates gay service members’ freedom of speech and due process rights under the First and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. In this respect, the litigation is similar to another lawsuit currently pending before the Ninth Circuit challenging “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: Log Cabin Republicans v. United States.
Now that the litigation has been filed, the U.S. Justice Department has 60 days to respond to the complaint. The Obama administration has previously defended “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the courts and is expected to continue defending the statute against this lawsuit.
M. Andrew Woodmansee, a partner at Morrison & Foerster, said a case management conference for the litigation before a district court judge should take place in March. He said he’s not expecting a trial for this lawsuit, but instead, a ruling by summary judgment in summer 2011.
Woodmansee said it’s “virtually impossible” to predict whether the legislation would succeed at the district court level — or even the appellate court or U.S. Supreme Court level — but said he believes the lawsuit has a “very strong” chance of succeeding based on the strong military records of the plaintiffs seeking reinstatement.
“There are a lot of factors to consider, but I think this case is very strong because it’s also very simple in that sense we are looking at three individual service members who want nothing more than to go back and serve their country,” he said.
Repeal advocates have filed the lawsuit as legislation remains pending before the U.S. Senate that would lead to repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), as of Monday had 40 co-sponsors, according to the Human Rights Campaign, and is expected to come up for a vote during the lame duck session of Congress.
In a statement, Aubrey Sarvis, SLDN’s executive director, said the lawsuit is part of “an aggressive, far-reaching litigation strategy” that his organization is planning if Congress fails to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this month.
“This dispute can be resolved by Congress or by the courts.” Sarvis said. “With this filing we put Congress on notice that a cadre of service members and our national legal team stand ready to litigate strategically around the country.”
If Congress doesn’t repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Sarvis said SLDN plans to file another lawsuit early next year on behalf of young people who want to enter military service, but can’t because of the military’s gay ban, and a lawsuit for discharged service members who want to serve in the National Guard or the reserves.
While repeal advocates pursue both litigation and legislation as avenues to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the Obama administration has emphasized that congressional action and not action from the courts is the preferred way to the end the law. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said a legislative end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would provide adequate training time to implement open service in the U.S. armed forces.
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs reiterated the point that the legislative route is the preferred way to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in response to a question from the Washington Blade on the new lawsuit.
“One of the two entities — either Congress or the courts — is going to repeal or do away with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Gibbs said. “The best way to do it would be to do it through Congress. The House has passed that legislation, and it is clear that well more than a majority of U.S. senators believe that that’s the case as well.”
Woodmansee said he thinks legislative action should be taken on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but added litigation remains an option should Congress be unable to finish the job.
“Throughout this country’s history, the courts stand ready to act when Congress doesn’t, and that’s what we’ve done here,” Woodmansee said. “We’ve been trying to effect a deal through the legislature, and if they won’t act, then we have no choice … but to go the courts and ask them to do their job, and that is provide a check as the third branch of government.”