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A Second US District Judge Blocks Trump’s Ban on Transgender Military Service

Posted on: November 21st, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

A second federal district judge has issued a preliminary injunction against implementation of President Donald Trump’s August 25 Memorandum implementing his July 26 tweet announcing a ban on all military service by transgender individuals. Stone v. Trump, Civil Action No. MJG-17-2459 (D. Md.). The November 21 action by District Judge Marvin J. Garbis of the District of Maryland came just three weeks after a federal district judge in the District of Columbia, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, had issued a preliminary injunction against two directives in Trump’s three-directive memo.  (See Doe v. Trump, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 178892, 2017 WL 4873042 (D.D.C. Oct. 30, 2017).  Judge Garbis took the next step, enjoining implementation of all three directives, finding that the plaintiff group represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in this case includes at least two individuals who had standing to challenge the directive against the military providing sex reassignment procedures for military personnel.

In his August 25 Memorandum, Trump directed that all transgender service members be discharged, beginning no later than March 23, 2018, and that the existing ban on accession of transgender members, scheduled to end on January 1, 2018, be extended indefinitely. His third directive provided that after March 23 the Defense Department cease providing sex reassignment surgery for transgender personnel, with a possible individual exception in cases where procedures were already under way and failure to complete them would endanger the health of the individual.  (Of course, those individuals, being identified as transgender, would be subject to discharge under the first directive in any event.)

On September 24, Secretary of Defense James Mattis issued a memorandum establishing an “interim policy,” announcing that he would meet the President’s deadline of submitting a “plan to implement the policy and directives in the Presidential Memorandum” by February 21, but until then, there would be no immediate effect on individual service members.

The ACLU filed this lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Maryland on August 8. Three other lawsuits challenging the transgender ban are pending.  One filed on August 9 in the District of Columbia District Court has already resulted in the preliminary injunction issued by Judge Kollar-Kotelly.  The others are pending in the District Courts in Seattle and Los Angeles, where the plaintiffs are also seeking preliminary injunctions.

Judge Garbis leaned heavily on Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s October 30 ruling for much of his analysis, agreeing with her that heightened scrutiny applies to the plaintiffs’ equal protection claim and that the usual judicial deference to military policy decisions by the Executive Branch was not appropriate in this case. The judge took particular note of an amicus brief filed by retired military officers and former national security officials, who had written that “this is not a case where deference is warranted, in light of the absence of any considered military policymaking process, and the sharp departure from decades of precedent on the approach of the U.S. military to major personnel policy changes.”

Continued Garbis, “President Trump’s tweets did not emerge from a policy review, nor did the Presidential Memorandum identify any policymaking process or evidence demonstrating that the revocation of transgender rights was necessary for any legitimate national interest. Based on the circumstances surrounding the President’s announcement and the departure from normal procedure, the Court agrees with the D.C. Court that there is sufficient support for Plaintiffs’ claims that ‘the decision to exclude transgender individuals was not driven by genuine concerns regarding military efficacy.’”

Indeed, Garbis concluded that heightened scrutiny was not even necessary to rule for the Plaintiffs on this motion. “The lack of any justification for the abrupt policy change, combined with the discriminatory impact to a group of our military service members who have served our country capably and honorably, cannot possibly constitute a legitimate governmental interest,” he wrote, so it would fail the minimally demanding rationality test applied to all government policies.

Garbis closely followed the D.C. Court’s analysis of the grounds for jurisdiction in this case, rejecting the government’s argument that nobody had been harmed yet so nobody had standing to bring the case, and that it was not yet ripe for judicial resolution when Mattis had not yet made his implementation recommendations to the President. The adoption of a policy that violates equal protection is deemed a harm even before it is implemented, and the stigmatic harm of the government officially deeming all transgender people as unfit to serve the country is immediate.  The court found that Trump’s directive that Mattis study how to implement the president’s orders was not, in effect, a mandate to recommend exceptions or abandonment of the ban, thus undercutting the government’s argument that it is merely hypothetical or speculative that the ban would go into effect unless enjoined by the courts.

Garbis went further than Kollar-Kotelly to enjoin the sex reassignment directive because the ACLU’s plaintiff group included at least two individuals whose transition procedures have already been disrupted and will be further disrupted if the ban goes into effect. The D.C. Court had accepted the government’s argument that appropriate adjustments had vitiated any negative effect on the plaintiffs in that case who were seeking transition procedures, but Garbis found that the timing of the transition procedures for the plaintiffs before him would be disrupted if the ban goes into effect, so the harm was not merely hypothetical.

The court based the preliminary injunction on its finding that plaintiffs were likely to prevail in their equal protection argument, and did not address the due process argument in that context. However, in rejecting the government’s motion to dismiss the due process claim, Garbis accepted the plaintiffs’ argument that “it is egregiously offensive to actively encourage transgender service members to reveal their status and serve openly, only to use the revelation to destroy those service members’ careers.”

In perhaps the strongest statement in his opinion, Garbis wrote: “An unexpected announcement by the President and Commander in Chief of the United States via Twitter that ‘the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military’ can be considered shocking under the circumstances. According to news reports provided by Plaintiffs, the Secretary of Defense and other military officials were surprised by the announcement.  The announcement also drew swift criticism from retired generals and admirals, senators, and more than 100 Members of Congress.  A capricious, arbitrary, and unqualified tweet of new policy does not trump the methodical and systematic review by military stakeholders qualified to understand the ramifications of policy changes.”

The only setback suffered by the plaintiffs was dismissal, without prejudice, of their claim that the policy violates 10 U.S.C. sec. 1074(a)(1), a statute the entitles active duty and reserve military members to medical care in military treatment facilities. The plaintiffs claimed that the sex reassignment directive exceeded the President’s authority by attempting to override a statute by “denying necessary medical care to a group of service member he happens to disfavor,” and that doing so through a unilateral White House memorandum rather than a regulation adopted pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act was unlawful.  Garbis characterized the plaintiffs’ factual allegations in support of this claim as “conclusory” and thus not sufficient to meet the civil pleading requirement.  However, he wrote, “Perhaps Plaintiffs could assert an adequate and plausible statutory claim,” so he dismissed without prejudice, allowing the plaintiffs to seek permission to file an amendment that “adequately asserts such a claim if they can do so.”  This dismissal does not really affect the substance of the relief granted by the preliminary injunction or sought in the ongoing case, because Judge Garbis granted the preliminary injunction on constitutional grounds against implementation of Trump’s sex reassignment surgery, exactly the part of the Trump memorandum targeted by the statutory claim.

The Justice Department will likely seek to appeal this ruling to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, just as it had announced that it would appeal Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s ruling to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.  By the time an appeal is considered, however, it is likely that preliminary injunctions will also have been issued by the district courts in Seattle and Los Angeles.  Maybe a united front of judicial rejections of the transgender ban will convince Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose department is defending the ban, that it is time to withdraw the August 25 Memorandum and disavow the July 26 tweet.

Since the Administration takes the position that Presidential tweets are official policy statements of the President, a disavowal of the tweets would be necessary to render the policy fully withdrawn, one presumes, although this is unexplored territory. Interestingly, Judge Garbis followed Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s example by including a cut and paste version of the Trump tweet sequence in the background section of his opinion, and specifically identified policy announcement by tweet as a departure from normal procedure that contributes to the constitutional analysis.

Judge Garbis, a Senior U.S. District Judge, was appointed by President George H.W. Bush.