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Two Federal Judges Deal Setbacks to Trump’s Transgender Military Ban

Posted on: December 11th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

Federal district judges on opposite coasts dealt setbacks to President Donald J. Trump’s anti-transgender military policy on December 11.  U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the District Court in Washington, D.C., rejected a motion by the Justice Department in Doe v. Trump to stay her preliminary injunction that requires the Defense Department to allow transgender people to apply to join the service beginning January 1, 2018.  And U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman refused to dismiss the complaint in Karnoski v. Trump, a lawsuit challenging the anti-transgender service ban, while granting the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction against implementation of the policy.  Also on December 11, U.S. District Judge Jesus G. Bernal in Los Angeles heard arguments in support of a motion for preliminary injunction in Stockman v. Trump, a fourth lawsuit challenging the ban.

Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s decision was predictable, given her October 30 ruling granting the preliminary injunction and a more recent ruling “clarifying,” at the request of the Justice Department, that she really intended to require the Defense Department to allow transgender individuals to begin enlisting on January 1.  The Justice Department incredibly claimed that this January 1 deadline created an emergency situation, but their argument was significantly undercut by reports last week that the Pentagon had, in response to the judge’s earlier Order, put into motion the steps necessary to comply.

In support of its motion for a stay, DOJ presented a “declaration” from Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Personnel Policy Lernes J. Hebert, who claimed that implementing the court’s order on January 1 would “impose extraordinary burdens on the Department and the military services” and that “notwithstanding the implementation efforts made to date, the Department still would not be adequately and properly prepared to begin processing transgender applicants for military service by January 1, 2018.”

The judge found this unconvincing, pointing out that DoD has had almost a year and a half to prepare for this eventuality, dating back to former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s June 2016 Directive pointing to a July 1, 2016, implementation date for allowing transgender people to enlist, which was extended for six months by Secretary James Mattis at the end of June 2017.  “Moreover,” she wrote, “the Court issued the preliminary injunction in this case approximately six weeks ago, and since then Defendants have been on notice that they would be required to implement the previously established policy of beginning to accept transgender individuals on January 1, 2018.  In other words, with only a brief hiatus, Defendants have had the opportunity to prepare for the accession of transgender individuals into the military for nearly one and a half years.”

In opposition to the motion, the plaintiffs had submitted a declaration by Dr. George Richard Brown, who has trained “approximately 250 medical personnel working in Military Entrance Processing Stations (MEPS) throughout the military” in anticipation of implementing the accessions policy, and a declaration by former Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, Jr., who stated that “the Services had already completed almost all of the necessary preparation for lifting the accession ban” as long as a year ago.

As to the so-called emergency nature of this motion, Judge Kollar-Kotelly wrote, “As a final point, the Court notes that Defendants’ portrayal of their situation as an emergency is belied by their litigation tactics. The Court issued its preliminary injunction requiring Defendants to comply with the January 1, 2018 deadline on October 30, 2017.  Defendants did not file an appeal of that decision until November 21, 2017, and did not file the current motion for a stay of that deadline until December 6, 2017, requesting a decision by noon today, December 11, 2017.  There is also no indication that Defendants have sought any sort of expedited review of their appeal, the first deadlines in which are not until January, 2018.  If complying with the military’s previously established January 1, 2018 deadline to begin accession was as unmanageable as Defendants now suggest, one would have expected Defendants to act with more alacrity.”

However, the judge’s denial of the stay may prove more symbolic than effective in terms of allowing transgender people to actually enlist, since she noted that the policy that will go into effect on January 1 presents significant barriers to enlistment on medical grounds.  The Pentagon is planning to require that transgender applicants show, generally speaking, that for at least 18 months prior to their applications they have been “stable” with regard to their gender identity.  Nobody can enlist, for example, if they have undergone gender confirmation surgery within the past 18 months, since the medical standard will require that they have been “stable” for at least 18 months after the last surgical treatment.  Similarly, anybody first diagnosed as having gender dysphoria within the previous 18 months cannot enlist, since they will have to have certified by a licensed medical provider that they have been “stable without clinically significant distress or impairment” for at least 18 months since their diagnosis.  And those under treatment, for example taking hormone therapy, will have to show they have been stable for at least 18 months since commencing therapy.  In addition, of course, applicants will have to meet all medical requirements applicable to everybody regardless of gender identity, and it is well-known that a substantial percentage of potential enlistees are disqualified on physical/medical grounds.

As to the government’s “extraordinary burden” argument, Judge Kollar-Kotelly noted, “There is no evidence in the record that would suggest that the number of transgender individuals who might seek to accede on January 1, 2018, would be overwhelmingly large.  To the contrary, although the Court understands that there may be some dispute as to the amount of transgender individuals in the general population and in the military, the record thus far suggests that the number is fairly small.”

Plaintiffs in Doe v. Trump are represented by National Center for Lesbian Rights and GLAD.

The plaintiffs in Karnoski v. Trump, pending in the district court in Seattle, are represented by Lambda Legal and Outserve/SLDN.  They alleged four theories for challenging the policy: equal protection, substantive due process (deprivation of liberty), procedural due process, and freedom of speech.  Judge Pechman found that three out of these four theories were sufficiently supported by the complaint to deny the Justice Department’s motion to dismiss the case, although she granted the motion as to the procedural due process claim.  She efficiently disposed of various procedural objections to the lawsuit, finding that all of the plaintiffs have standing to proceed, including the organizational plaintiffs and the State of Washington, whose motion to intervene as a plaintiff had previously been granted, and that the dispute is ripe for judicial resolution because of the imminent implementation of Trump’s policy directives.

As had two district judges before her, Judge Pechman cut and pasted screen captures of the president’s July 26 tweet announcing the policy into her opinion, and used particularly cutting language to reject DOJ’s argument that the president’s policy decision was entitled to the kind of judicial deference usually accorded to military policy decisions. “Defendants rely on Rostker v. Goldberg (1981). In Rostker, the Supreme Court considered whether the Military Selective Service Act (MSSA), which compelled draft registration for men only, was unconstitutional.  Finding that the MSSA was enacted after extensive review of legislative testimony, floor debates, and committee reports, the Supreme Court held that Congress was entitled to deference when, in ‘exercising the congressional authority to raise and support armies and make rules for their governance,’ it does not act ‘unthinkingly’ or ‘reflexively and not for any considered reason.’  In contrast, the prohibition on military service by transgender individuals was announced by President Trump on Twitter, abruptly and without any evidence of considered reason or deliberation.  The policy is therefore not entitled to Rostker deference.  Because Defendants have failed to demonstrate that the policy prohibiting transgender individuals from serving openly is substantially related to important government interests, it does not survive intermediate scrutiny.”  In a footnote, the judge added, “For the same reasons, the policy is also unlikely to survive rational basis review.”

The court concluded that all the tests for preliminary injunctive relief established by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals (Washington State is within the 9th Circuit) had easily been satisfied.  Her Order “enjoins Defendants and their officers, agents, servants, employees, and attorneys, and any other person or entity subject to their control or acting directly or indirectly in concert or participation with Defendants from taking any action relative to transgender individuals that is inconsistent with the status quo that existed prior to President Trump’s July 26, 2017 announcement.  This Preliminary Injunction shall take effect immediately and shall remain in effect pending resolution of this action on the merits or further order of this Court.”

Thus, Judge Pechman issued the third preliminary injunction against Trump’s anti-transgender policy, after those issued by Judge Kollar-Kotelly on October 30 and U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis in Stone v. Trump on November 21 in the District Court in Maryland. All three preliminary injunctions block the discharge of transgender service members while the case is pending and require the Pentagon to allow transgender people to begin enlisting on January 1.  The injunctions by Judge Garbis and Judge Pechman also block the administration from refusing to fund transition-related health care (including surgery).  In the face of this united front from the three judges, it seems likely that Judge Bernal will eventually issue a similar order, so attention will turn to the Courts of Appeals to which DOJ has appealed the first ruling and presumably will soon appeal the others.