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Legal experts disagree over Obama action on ‘Don’t Ask’

Does Oath of Office force presidents to defend all laws?

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Nan Hunter, a Georgetown University law professor and prominent gay rights attorney, says President Obama has done the right thing in appealing a decision by a federal judge that overturned the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law.

Hunter’s view contradicts the position of nearly all national LGBT rights groups, which have urged Obama not to appeal the decision. But she is joined by a number of other legal and constitutional experts who oppose ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ but believe U.S. presidents are obligated to defend laws passed by Congress under most circumstances.

“I think the president, through the Justice Department, should defend federal laws, including this one,” Hunter said. “Otherwise you just get way too much. You get the president being able to ignore laws that are passed by Congress, and that’s not a good situation.”

Hunter cautioned LGBT activists that dismantling the longstanding tradition that presidents should defend duly enacted laws — even unpopular ones — could result in the refusal by a different president to enforce laws beneficial to LGBT people.

Other legal experts, including constitutional specialists with the American Civil Liberties Union and the LGBT litigation group Lambda Legal, agree that presidents generally should defend federal laws. But they say the obligation to defend a law should not apply to cases where strong evidence exists that the law is unconstitutional and a court issues a ruling overturning the law on constitutional grounds.

“The ACLU recognizes the Executive’s duty to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed,’” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero in an Oct. 14 open letter to Attorney General Eric Holder.

“This duty includes the responsibility to defend Acts of Congress in court, provided there is at least a reasonable argument in favor of the Act’s constitutionality,” Romero said. “At the same time, the Executive is duty bound to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,’ which guarantees that no person is ‘deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.’”

Romero noted that U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Phillips in California ruled in September that the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law is unconstitutional on those same grounds.

“The question is no longer whether the Executive will defend an Act of Congress, but whether the Executive will appeal from a well-reasoned, obviously correct federal court ruling based on findings of fact that are exceedingly unlikely to be reversed,” he said in his letter.

“Given these findings and the proper legal standard of review to be applied, there is no reasonable argument for the constitutionality of the policy, and no reason for the government to appeal,” he said.

Hunter, who personally opposes ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ said following that course could become a “political disaster” that prompts a possible Republican Congress next year to take action to reinstate the law or attempt to force the president to continue to enforce it.

A far better course of action, according to Hunter, would be for the administration to appeal the decision and use a careful, strategic approach to presenting its arguments before the appeals court.

“There are many, many possibilities for how the administration could respond,” she said. “It could respond by filing the appeal so that the case goes to the appeals court and then making arguments that represent the president’s view that it’s a bad law…And then the court of appeals will decide, and that will have much more authority than one District Court judge.”

Susan Sommer, director of constitutional litigation for Lambda Legal, says Obama should not have appealed Judge Phillip’s decision to overturn ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’

“It’s really a shame that the Obama administration is appealing this decision,” Sommer said. “The president is in no position to appeal a decision on a policy that the courts say is unconstitutional. He has an obligation to uphold the Constitution.”

Sommer said she agrees that Obama has an obligation to uphold laws as well as the Constitution.

“But he does not have an obligation to defend a statute whose constitutionality is being challenged in court,” she said. “There have been precedents of a president not defending a law under court challenge. The Justice Department exercises discretion all the time on whether to take cases or not, both civil and criminal.”

David Rittgers, legal policy analyst for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, and an attorney with the Army Reserves, called the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ case a “unique situation” that involves all three branches of the federal government.

Saying he’s speaking for himself and not the Army, Rittgers said he sides with those who believe the president should defend laws, including this one.

“Congress ultimately has to answer this question,” he said. “This will not be a settled issue until Congress acts. This is constitutionally within the realm of Congress.”

Susan Low Bloch, a Georgetown University law professor who specializes in constitutional law, said presidents have refused to enforce laws or chosen not to appeal court decisions overturning them mostly in cases where the law interferes with the president’s or the executive branch’s ability to carry out its duties.

“That’s not the situation with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” she said. “And that’s why it’s not at all surprising to me that the administration has chosen to defend the law, even though they don’t like it. The way to get rid of it is to undo it the proper way—to get Congress to undo it.”

“Now if the court strikes it down, I’m sure behind the scenes the president will be very happy. But he’s not supposed to go into court and undermine it,” she said.

Asked whether she believes a president should wait for the Supreme Court to strike down a law before he or she can stop enforcing it, Bloch said, “Yes, that’s right.”

“People really shouldn’t be surprised at this course because … clearly this is the way the system has worked and I think should work,” she said.

(Obama photo by Michael Key)

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U.S. Federal Courts

Guilty verdict in first federal murder trial based on gender identity

Dime Doe killed in S.C. in 2019

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Dime Doe (Family photo)

A federal jury on Friday handed down a guilty verdict of a man accused of murdering a Black transgender woman in what is classified as the first in the nation federal trial over a hate crime based on gender identity.

After a 4-day trial in a federal hate crime case, a jury found a South Carolina man, Daqua Lameek Ritter, guilty of all charges in the indictment, which included one hate crime count, one federal firearms count and one obstruction count, all arising out of the murder of Dime Doe.

“Acts of violence against LGBTQI+ people, including transgender women of color like Dime Doe, are on the rise and have no place in our society,” said Acting Associate Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer. “The Justice Department takes seriously all bias-motivated acts of violence and will not hesitate to hold accountable those who commit them. No one should have to live in fear of deadly violence because of who they are.”

According to court documents and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, evidence presented at trial showed that Ritter was upset that rumors about his sexual relationship with Dime Doe were out in the community. On Aug. 4, 2019, the defendant lured Doe to a remote area in Allendale, S.C., and shot her three times in the head. At trial, the government proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Ritter murdered Doe because of her gender identity. Ritter then burned the clothes he was wearing during the crime, disposed of the murder weapon and repeatedly lied to law enforcement. 

This was the first trial under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act for violence against a trans person. The Shepard-Byrd Act is a landmark federal statute passed in 2009 which allows federal criminal prosecution of hate crimes motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

“A unanimous jury has found the defendant guilty for the heinous and tragic murder of Dime Doe, a Black transgender woman,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The jury’s verdict sends a clear message: Black trans lives matter, bias-motivated violence will not be tolerated and perpetrators of hate crimes will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. This case is historic; this defendant is the first to be found guilty by trial verdict for a hate crime motivated by gender identify under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. We want the Black trans community to know that you are seen and heard, that we stand with the LGBTQI+ community and that we will use every tool available to seek justice for victims and their families.”

Ritter faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled at a later date. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering federal sentencing guidelines and other statutory factors.

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Oklahoma

Okla. lawmaker describes LGBTQ people as ‘filth’

State Sen. Tom Woods made comment on Friday

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Oklahoma state Sen. Tom Woods (Photo courtesy of Woods' state Senate website)

Republican Oklahoma state Sen. Tom Woods took part in a public legislative panel forum on Friday, during which the panel was asked by a constituent about the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary Owasso High School student who had been attacked and beaten in a school bathroom. 

The Oklahoma Voice reported that Cathy Cott, a 64-year-old semi-retired resident, asked the lawmakers why the Legislature had such an obsession with the LGBTQ citizens of the state, what people do in their personal lives and how they raise their children, according to the Tahlequah Daily Press, which first reported the remarks.

When she got no answer, she asked about the bills targeting the LGBTQ community.

“Why does the Legislature have such an obsession with the LGBTQ citizens of Oklahoma and what people do in their personal lives and how they raise their children?” Cott asked.

Woods replied, “We are a Republican state — supermajority — in the House and Senate. I represent a constituency that doesn’t want that filth in Oklahoma. You know we are a religious state. We are going to fight and keep that filth out of the state of Oklahoma because we’re a Christian state” 

The Tahlequah Daily Press also reported several audience members clapped, while others appeared shocked.

Cott said in an interview with Oklahoma Voice that she was not surprised by Woods’ answer.

Cott said she has many family and friends who are LGBTQ.

“I have dealt with other state representatives and senators and been to lobby day and tried to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community when I can so I am used to it,” she said. “They haven’t said anything like this to me before where they describe citizens of the state as filth, but they let me know they just don’t care.”

She said Woods’ remarks absolutely contribute to the hostile climate in the state for the LGBTQ community.

Prior to his election to his seat to represent Oklahoma’s Senate District 4 in 2022, Woods was a farmer and business owner. He ran a dairy farm, feed store and trucking company. His district runs along the eastern border of Oklahoma from West Fort Smith to Grove, and runs into Tahlequah.

Another Republican, state Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, a former teacher, told the audience he’s always seen educators’ jobs as “to educate students, not indoctrinate students.”

In a statement to the Washington Blade, Human Rights Campaign National Press Secretary Brandon Wolf said:

“The only ‘filth’ here is this vile statement from a sitting state senator. This is the kind of hate speech that incites deadly violence against our communities. This is what we mean when we say that the flames of dehumanization and hate have been fanned in Oklahoma. Enough is enough. There needs to be accountability for this climate of hate — and the damage being done.”

GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis told the Blade:

“Enough is enough. Oklahoma’s Republican leaders are continuing to nurture a climate of anti-LGBTQ animus, modeling disgusting anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, questioning our very humanity, attacking marginalized youth and educators who support them and improperly handling bullying and assaults at school. Leaders with a bully pulpit have the power to inspire empathy and understanding, but they also have the power to inspire hate, bullying and physical attacks. These so-called leaders fomenting hate, Sen. Tom Woods, Supt. Ryan Walters, Gov. Kevin Stitt are failing Oklahoma’s youth in dangerous and myriad ways.”

There has been national outage in reaction to the death of Benedict. Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) are among those in leadership decrying the death and the political climate that LGBTQ advocacy groups say have been contributing factors.

HRC President Kelley Robinson has called for federal investigations by the U.S. Justice and Education Departments.

In her social media post, the vice president said: “My heart goes out to Nex Benedict’s family, friends, and their entire community. To the LGBTQI+ youth who are hurting and are afraid right now: President Joe Biden and I see you, we stand with you and you are not alone.”

Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, who in 2022 signed an anti-trans bill prohibiting students from using public school restrooms that do not match the sex listed on their birth certificates, wrote in his statement that “our hearts go out to Nex’s family, classmates and the Owasso community. The death of any child in an Oklahoma school is a tragedy — and bullies must be held accountable.”

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Oklahoma

Police release Nex Benedict bodycam footage

Nonbinary teenager died earlier this month after a fight in school

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Owasso Police Department bodycam footage. (YouTube screenshot)

The Owasso Police Department on Friday released bodycam footage from the interview conducted by the Owasso High School resource officer taken at the emergency room, investigating the attack on a nonbinary high school student who died a day after the attack.

In the video, 16-year-old Nex Benedict describes how they were bullied by three girls for “the way that we dress.” After Benedict dumped some water on them, the girls pinned them to the floor of the restroom and beat them until they blacked out.

Benedict’s mother stresses that they did not throw any punches or get physically combative during the attack. Facts that Benedict then verified in their account to the investigating officer.

Police have confirmed to multiple media outlets that the school failed to follow procedure and notify law enforcement about the beating.

Owasso police department bodycam footage (video courtesy of the owasso police department)

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