A federal appellate court in California on Wednesday overturned a stay on an injunction that had barred the U.S. government from enforcing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” allowing gay service members to start serving openly in the armed forces.
In the case of Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the plaintiffs’ request to lift the stay of the injunction that was put in place last year by a U.S. district judge.
“Appellee/cross-appellant’s motion to lift this court’s November 1, 2010, order granting a stay of the district court’s judgment pending appeal is granted,” the decision states.
The decision to lift the stay on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” injunction comes from a three-judge panel within the Ninth Circuit made up of Chief Judge Alex Kozinski and Circuit Judges Kim Wardlow and Richard Paez.
After ruling in September that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was unconstitutional, U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips put an injunction in place to halt the enforcement of the military’s gay ban. The injunction lasted for eight days until the Ninth Circuit placed a stay on the order upon request from the Justice Department, making gays once again unable to serve openly in the military.
The ruling on Wednesday reverses this decision and once again allows for open service. The Ninth Circuit must still decide on the constitutionality of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but until it does, the anti-gay law will no longer be enforced.
Cynthia Smith, a Defense Department spokesperson, said the Pentagon is studying the decision with the Justice Department, but will comply with the court order and take “immediate steps to inform the field of this order.”
“In the meantime, implementation of the [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] repeal voted by the Congress and signed into law by the president last December is proceeding smoothly, is well underway, and certification is just weeks away,” Smith added.
The panel’s decision, dated July 6, notes that the U.S. government never asserted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was constitutional in briefs seeking to uphold the statute. Further, the appellate court notes U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement in February that the Obama administration determined that the Defense of Marriage Act — and laws related to sexual orientation — are unconstitutional.
“Appellants/cross-appellees state that the process of repealing [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] is well underway, and the preponderance of the armed forces are expected to have been trained by mid-summer,” the decision states. “The circumstances and balance of hardships have changed, and appellants/cross-appellees can no longer satisfy the demanding standard for issuance of a stay.”
R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, which brought the case to court, said the Ninth Circuit’s decision to lift the stay “removes all uncertainty” for gay service members who are “no longer under threat of discharge as the repeal implementation process goes forward.”
“As a captain in the United States Army Reserve, I have observed the reactions of my colleagues to the Department of Defense’s move toward open service, and can say with complete confidence that our military is ready, willing and able to take this step,” Cooper said. “Log Cabin Republicans are proud of our role in ending this unconstitutional and un-American policy once and for all.”
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United and the sole military veteran plaintiff in the lawsuit, praised the decision for bringing about an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at a time when certification is still outstanding to end the military’s gay ban legislatively.
“With the wait for certification dragging out beyond a reasonable time frame, the court has once again stepped in to require the Pentagon to stop enforcing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and this time it very well may be for good,” Nicholson said. “I am proud to have worked personally worked with Log Cabin on this case for more than five years now and to have represented the gay military community as the sole named veteran on this lawsuit. Despite the criticisms and years of waiting, this case has yet again successfully eviscerated this outdated, harmful, and discriminatory law.”
Under the repeal law signed in December, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” won’t be off the books until 60 days pass after the president, the defense secretary and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify the military for open service. Although training throughout the military has been underway since February, certification has yet to take place.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said the lifting of the stay is “most welcomed” and could have been avoided if the president and defense leaders had certified repeal at an earlier time.
“It’s the hope of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network that this favorable ruling will not be challenged by the Defense Department,” Sarvis said. “In fact, this whole matter could have been avoided had we had certification back in the spring. It’s time to get on with that important certification, end the confusion for all service members, and put a final end to this misguided policy.”
Dan Woods, an attorney with White & Case LLC who’s handling the case for Log Cabin, said the Justice Department can appeal the lifting of the stay to either the full Ninth Circuit or the Supreme Court.
“I have no idea what the government’s going to do,” Woods said. “And really they shouldn’t have appealed in the first place and they shouldn’t take this any further. They just should acknowledge, once and for all, that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is dead.”
A White House spokesperson deferred comment on the Ninth Circuit decision to the Justice Department and the Pentagon.
Woods warned gay service members not to come out until the government makes an announcement and whether or not it plans to appeal the decision to lift the stay on the injunction.
“I’m urging people to sort of wait and see what the government does before people come out, but people should stayed tuned and see what the government’s next move is and maybe people will be free to serve openly in the armed forces very soon,” Woods said.
In addition to lifting the stay, the appellate court also grants the plaintiff’s request to expedite oral arguments in the case and states the case should be calendared for the week of Aug. 29.
Woods said the continued oral arguments — even with the injunction in place — are necessary because the litigation in the Log Cabin lawsuit is still ongoing.
“The only thing that’s really been decided is that the stay of the injunction,” Woods said. “The government is still arguing in its appeal that the injunction. It’s arguing that Log Cabin doesn’t have standing to bring the case and things like that, and we wanted to put these issues to bed once and for all and so we asked the court for an expedited hearing on all these other issues.”
NOTE: This post has been updated.