The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit revived a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Washington (state) challenging the constitutionality of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy (DADT) excluding openly lesbian, gay, or bisexual (collectively, “lesbigay”) persons from the U.S. military. The district court had dismissed the suit by the much decorated Major Witt challenging the constitutionality of her suspension from duty as an Air Force reservist nurse because of her relationship with a civilian woman. In Margaret Witt v. Department of the Air Force (9th Cir. May 21, 2008) (opinion also here), a three-judge panel held that the Air Force should be required on remand to satisfy a heightened form of scrutiny under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. A 2-1 majority regarded the panel as bound by earlier Ninth Circuit precedent holding that DADT does not violate the Equal Protection Clause under what the court held was the applicable rational basis review.
Witt is important because it concludes that an earlier Ninth Circuit decision upholding a precursor to the DADT policy under heightened scrutiny under the Due Process Clause was “no longer good law” in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas (2003). In particular, the Ninth Circuit panel majority held that “Lawrence applied something more than traditional rational basis review.” (It rejected the contrary interpretation adopted by Lofton v. Secretary of Department of Children & Family Services, 358 F.3rd 804 (11th Cir. 2004), concluding that “the Eleventh Circuit failed to appreciaate both the liberty interest recognized by Lawrence and the heightened-scrutiny balancing employed by Lawrence.”) As a consequence, Witt held, “when the government attempts to intrude upon the personal and private lives of homosexuals [sic], in a manner that implicates the rights identified in Lawrence, the government must advance an important governmental interests, the intrusion must significantly further that interest, and the intrusion must be necessary to further that int. In other words, for the third factor, a less intrusive means must be unlikely to achieve substantially the government’s interest.”
Unfortunately, the Ninth Circuit majority also held “that this heightened scrutiny analysis is as-applied rather than facial.” As a result, the trial court on remand could determine that application of DADT to Major Witt violated her substantive due process rights, but may not be free to hold the policy facially unconstitutional.
Judge Canby concurred in part and dissented part. In his view, the court did not go far enough. It should have held that Lawrence undermined both the Ninth Circuit’s due process cases and its equal protection cases upholding the military exclusion of lesbigay persons. After all, when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals originally held that rational basis review was the proper standard for challenges to the military exclusion, the court relied on the Supreme Court’s decision in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) – which Lawrence v. Texas overruled in 1993! Moreover, Judge Canby argued, consistently with his longstanding view (see, e.g., High Tech Gays v. DISCO, 909 F.2d at 376-80 (9th Cir. 1990) (Canby, J., dissenting from denial of rehearing en banc), that strict scrutiny should be the governing standard both under the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and under the equal protection guarantee embodied in that clause.
Even though the Ninth Circuit panel did not embrace Judge Canby’s persuasive opinion, its recognition that DADT intrudes upon the constitutionally protected liberty of lesbigay persons in troublesome ways is encouraging, as is its holding that Major Witt should have her day in court to challenge her dismissal.