Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Federal Judge Enjoins DADT, But Ruling Not Flawless

A federal judge in California has declared Don't Ask, Don't Tell unconstitutional and enjoined enforcement of the anti-gay policy. The judge held that the policy violates the Due Process and First Amendment rights of gays and lesbians. Both the opinion and the injunction are available online.

I have read the injunction and the 86-page opinion. Although I agree that DADT is unconstitutional (and homophobic), the judge's ruling is not without weaknesses. There are three elements to the decision that could result in a reversal.

First, the court does not substantially discuss "deference" to the military. Although military deference has often resulted in unjust rulings, it is still a doctrine that the Supreme Court applies in cases challenging both military practices and federal statutes regulating the military. I would like to have seen more discussion of this subject in the opinion.

Second, the court applied "heightened scrutiny" to determine whether the policy violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Heightened scrutiny refers to a more rigorous judicial test that usually applies when important rights are at stake or when the government is engaging in certain impermissible forms of discrimination.

The court reasoned that the Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v. Texas and Ninth Circuit caselaw mandate the application of heightened scrutiny. It is unclear, however, whether Lawrence requires the application of heightened scrutiny. At least one federal appeals court has ruled that it does not, and many progressive legal scholars have, in fact, condemned the case for not being as serious about anti-gay discrimination as many commentators believe it is. Furthermore, the specific Ninth Circuit test is not widely applied in constitutional cases, and this could present problems if the litigation reaches the Supreme Court.

The First Amendment ruling also raises questions. Several other courts have denied that DADT raises First Amendment questions. These courts reason that admissions of sexual orientation simply inform the military that the individual fits within a prohibited class of service members. I do not believe that the issue is this simple, and neither does the federal judge in California. Nonetheless, I suspect that the government will contest this portion of the ruling as well.

There is one additional issue that I do not believe will lead to a winning argument for the government. The court's injunction permanently enjoins the military from enforcing DADT. The government argued that the court should have issued a more discrete injunction and enjoin enforcement of the policy only against members of The Log Cabin Club (the conservative gay organization that brought the litigation). Although some conservative caselaw calls for limited injunctive relief, precedent supports generalized injunctions in these circumstances.

In sum, I agree with the outcome of the case of much of the court's reasoning. I have only highlighted these weaknesses to inform readers who abhor the policy that the fight against it is not over.

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