'Don't Ask, Don't Tell': An End to Court Deference to the Military?

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Courtesy United States District Court, Central District of California / Reuters

U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips

President Obama's battle over gays in the military escalated on Tuesday, as a federal judge refused to back down from her order to stop the enforcement of "Don't ask, don't tell" and the Pentagon for the first time ordered recruitment centers across the country to welcome potential recruits who are openly gay or lesbian. The Pentagon's guidance to recruiters was a remarkable development, ending — for the moment — a blanket ban on gays serving openly in the military, even as the Obama Administration scrambled to put the ban back in place.

The Pentagon's message to recruiters warned that while they were to welcome gay potential recruits, they must also notify those would-be soldiers, sailors and Marines that if the Obama Administration succeeds in putting Judge Virginia Phillips' decision on hold or, ultimately, has it reversed, their enlistments will be stopped. But Phillips has rebuffed the Obama Administration's efforts to delay her ruling long enough to appeal. And in doing so, she has tossed aside muscular arguments from top military officials who warn of dire consequences if her ruling stands.

Her easy dismissal of such arguments comes on the heels of a string of other gay-rights rulings that appear to have outpaced the will of voters and state lawmakers alike. It has prompted some legal scholars to argue that the case's importance goes well beyond the legality of "Don't ask, don't tell." They say it also triggers key questions about the proper role of the judiciary and whether courts are losing their reluctance to interfere in military policymaking, even in times of war.

Throughout the 20th century, the Supreme Court deferred again and again to the military when it came to setting important policy, even when those policies apparently conflicted with fundamental rights. For instance, the court upheld rules denying Jewish soldiers the right to wear a yarmulke; it allowed rules limiting the roles women can play in combat; and, infamously in the case of Korematsu v. United States, it deferred to the military's argument that Japanese Americans on the West Coast should be interred in camps during World War II.

"Part of what is interesting here is that while Judge Phillips' order formally puts 'Don't ask, don't tell' and its constitutionality front and center, right behind that issue are important questions about the deference shown by the judiciary to the military where a military policy has been duly enacted by the Congress and signed by a President into law," says Marc Spindelman of Ohio State University's law school. Those questions are likely being debated in the Justice Department as the Administration decides whether to make an immediate appeal of Phillips' decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, or instead to simply seek more time to sort out its options by asking a special panel of higher-court judges to do what Phillips refused to do on Tuesday — stay her order until the matter can be resolved on appeal.

The President's decision about how to proceed will be made against a rising chorus of gay-rights groups and others who insist that he not appeal at all, a decision that would leave Phillips' order in place permanently and automatically make good on Obama's many promises to end discrimination against gays in the military. In the view of one leading constitutional scholar, the President's protestations that tradition requires him to defend the statute are unfounded. "It is entirely up to the President to decide whether or not to appeal," Dean Erwin Chereminsky of the University of California at Irving School of Law tells TIME. "The President takes an oath to uphold the Constitution and need not defend laws that he believes are unconstitutional. I think that if Obama wants an end to the policy, the simplest path is to not appeal the nationwide injunction."

But so far, Obama has insisted that he will appeal, in the hope that Congress, not the courts, will decide whether gays and lesbians can serve openly in the military.

So what's the next step? Chances are, the Administration won't appeal the full ruling — not yet. Instead, the Justice Department will likely ask judges from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to review Phillips' refusal to stay her order. That's a procedural matter that will be handled by a special rotating panel of three judges. Two of the judges serving this month — Circuit Judge Diarmuid F. O'Scannlain and Senior Circuit Judge Stephen S. Trott — were put on the bench by Ronald Reagan; the third, Circuit Judge William Fletcher, was nominated by Bill Clinton.

"Everything always comes down to which judges are deciding," says Vikram Amar, associate dean for academic affairs at the University of California at Davis School of Law. "Especially in this case, where the legal standards are not so self-executing, it really does depends on who you draw. Any of the conservatives on the Ninth Circuit are going to be more likely to give the military deference." No matter what happens with the stay, Amar says it's likely the Ninth Circuit will speed up review of Obama's promised appeal, probably setting oral arguments within a few months, just as it did with the Prop 8 gay-marriage case that is currently being appealed within the circuit.

Meanwhile, if Phillips' order stays in effect, things could get awkward for both the military and Obama. Douglas Smith, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruitment Command at Fort Knox in Kentucky, tells TIME that recruits who are open about their sexual orientation won't be turned away while the judge's order is in effect. "We continue to not ask what one's sexual orientation is," Smith says. "And if an applicant tells us they are gay or lesbian or bisexual, we are going to say O.K. and process their applications like any other applicant."

Obama has repeatedly insisted that "Don't ask, don't tell" is ripe for repeal. Now supporters are asking why, if the President is truly serious about a repeal, his Defense Secretary is issuing warnings that Phillips' ruling could have dire consequences for the military.

Chereminsky, for one, calls the Administration's response hypocritical. "I think it is stunningly hypocritical for the President to say [the policy] should be ended and for the Secretary of Defense to say that ending it would harm national security," he says. "It is strange that Secretary Gates now says that ending 'Don't ask, don't tell' will harm the military. The government presented no such evidence in court. Second, there is no reason why this is inherently more [appropriate] for Congress than the courts. Federal courts decide issues of rights — such as here, the First Amendment — all the time."

Whatever strategy the White House ultimately adopts in the case, Phillips' ruling, and her insistence on Tuesday that it be respected despite the military's objections, has added gasoline on a fire over gay rights that Obama has tried to keep to a low burn since his election. As the parade of gays and lesbians entering recruitment centers looking for enlistment papers swells in the coming days, that blaze will only get bigger — and probably harder to extinguish.