On August 25, 2017, President Donald J. Trump issued a Memorandum to the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security, directing that effective March 23, 2018, transgender people would not be allowed to serve in the military. The Memorandum charged Defense Secretary James Mattis with the task of submitting an implementation plan to the White House by February 21. Mattis submitted something in writing on February 23, but its contents have not been made public.
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a statement late on March 22 with Judge Marsha J. Pechman of the U.S. District Court in Seattle, Washington, essentially refusing to comply with her Order issued on March 20 to reveal the identity of the “generals” and other “military experts” whom Trump purportedly consulted before his Twitter announcement last July 26 that transgender people would not be allowed to serve in any capacity in the armed forces. Karnoski v. Trump, Case 2:17-cv-01297-MJP (Defendants’ Response to the Court’s March 20, 2018, Order, filed March 22, 2018), responding to Karnoski v. Trump, 2018 US. Dist. LEXIS 45696 (W.D. Wash. March 20, 2018).
Judge Pechman is presiding over a lawsuit filed last fall by Lambda Legal and Outserve-SLDN challenging the policy. Pechman denied DOJ’s motion to dismiss that case and granted a motion by the plaintiffs for a preliminary injunction against the policy going into effect. In order to grant the injunction, the judge had to conclude that it was likely the policy would be found to be unconstitutional and that an injunction pending the outcome of the case was necessary to protect the legitimate interests of people who would be adversely affected by the policy. Karnoski v. Trump, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167232 (W.D. Wash. Oct. 10, 2017), motion to stay preliminary injunction denied, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167232, 2017 WL 6311305 (W.D. Wash. Dec. 11, 2017); 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 213420 (W.D. Wash. Dec. 29, 2017).
Then discovery in the case began, and DOJ refused in February to comply with the plaintiffs’ request for the identity of the “generals” and “experts” Trump claimed in his tweet to have consulted. DOJ argued that their defense in the case would not rely on any testimony or documentation from such individuals, since they would not be defending the August 25 policy announcement, but rather some new policy yet to be announced after Mattis submitted his recommendations.
Judge Pechman, ruling on a requested order to compel discovery filed by the plaintiffs, observed in an opinion issued on March 14 that “this case arises not out of any new or future policy that is in the process of being developed, but rather out of the current policy prohibiting military serve by openly transgender persons, announced on Twitter by President Trump on July 26, 2017, and formalized in an August 25, 2017 Presidential Memorandum.” Karnoski v. Trump, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 43011 (W.D. Wash., March 14, 2018).
She continued, “Defendants cannot reasonably claim that there are no individuals likely to have discoverable information and no documents relevant to their claims and defenses regarding the current policy. President Trump’s own announcement states “after consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow . . . Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.”
Judge Pechman asked, “Which Generals and military experts were consulted? Which Service Chiefs and Secretaries provided counsel? What information did they review or rely upon in formulating the current policy? Were the court to credit Defendants’ Initial Disclosures and Amended Disclosures, the answer to these questions apparently would be ‘none.’” The judge gave DOJ five days to comply.
DOJ responded by seeking “clarification” and raising the prospect that the president could invoke “executive privilege” to refuse to comply with the discovery request, in order to protect the confidentiality of presidential deliberations.
Responding to this argument early on March 20, Pechman issued a new opinion, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 45696. She wrote, “The Court cannot rule on a ‘potential’ privilege, particularly where the allegedly privileged information is unidentified,” and pointed out that DOJ had not invoked executive privilege in its earlier incomplete responses to the plaintiffs’ discovery requests, or in any of their prior motions to the court. She pointed out that under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, “in order to assert privilege, a party must ‘expressly make the claim’ and ‘describe the nature of the documents, communications, or tangible things not produced or disclosed – and do so in a manner that, without revealing information itself privileged or protected, will enable other parties to assess the claim.”
Furthermore, she noted, “While Defendants claim they do not intend to rely on information concerning President Trump’s deliberative process, their claim is belied by their ongoing defense of the current policy as one involving ‘the complex, subtle, and professional decisions as to the composition . . . of a military force . . .’ to which ‘considerable deference’ is owed.” Of course, claiming that the court should “defer” to “professional decisions” requires showing that this policy was adopted as a result of “professional decisions” and not based solely on the President’s political concerns.
The refusal to disclose what advice the president relied upon in announcing this policy leads to the inevitable conclusion either that such consultations did not take place, as Judge Pechman intimated on March 14, or if they did the president was likely acting against the advice of his generals and military experts. Anybody reasonably informed on trends in the federal courts would have concluded by last summer that a revived ban on transgender service would be seriously vulnerable to constitutional challenge, and military commanders with a full year of experience in having openly transgender personnel would know that the policy implemented by the Obama Administration effective the beginning of July 2016 had not led to any problems with good order, morale, or substantial health care costs.
Judge Pechman gave DOJ until 5 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time on March 22 to comply with her discovery order. DOJ submitted its statement refusing to do so shortly before that deadline, once again arguing that because they did not intend to defend last summer’s policy pronouncements, they were standing on their position that they were not required to make any of the disclosures in dispute since they would not be calling any witnesses, documents or studies for the purpose of defending those policies.
As this is being written on March 23, there has been no indication by the White House that an implementation policy or a revised version of last summer’s policy is being announced. This is not surprising, since three other federal district judges as well as Judge Pechman issued preliminary injunctions last year against implementation of the policy that was to go into effect on March 23, and two federal courts of appeals (the D.C. Circuit and the 4th Circuit) rejected petitions by the Justice Department to stay two of the preliminary injunctions.
In fact, in light of the injunctions the Defense Department notified its recruitment staff in December about the criteria for enlistment of transgender applicants that would go into effect on January 1, 2018, and that process did go into effect, with a subsequent announcement by the Defense Department that at least one transgender applicant, whose name was not disclosed, had completed the enlistment process, marking the first time that an openly transgender individual has been allowed to enlist.
In a slippery move, DOJ may be trying to render the existing preliminary injunctions and lawsuits irrelevant by arguing that the policy announced in the August 25 Memorandum has never gone into effect and that, pursuant to Mattis’s undisclosed recommendations, it never will. Meanwhile, thousands of transgender military personnel find their employment status in a state of uncertainty, as do transgender reserve members or military service academy students working towards graduating and joining the active forces.
Perhaps some hint of what the new policy will be can be found in the Defense Department’s enlistment policies announced in December, which would preclude enlisting transgender individuals unless they are medically certified to have been “stable” with respect to their gender identity for at least 18 months, and thus unlikely to seek to transition while in military service, either because they have already completely transitioned from the gender identified at birth to their currently identified gender or presumably have foresworn any intent to transition while in the military.
This disclosure controversy relates back to the likely motivation behind Trump’s initial July tweet, which came shortly after the Houses of Representatives had rejected an amendment to a pending Defense spending bill that would have blocked any spending for “sex reassignment surgery” for military personnel. There were reports at the time that congressional sponsors of that amendment warned the President that he did not have sufficient Republican votes in the House to pass the bill in the absence of such a provision. Trump’s apparent solution to his immediate political problem was to bar all transgender military service, which would remove the possibility of any serving member seeking to access the military health care budget to pay for their transition, since such a request would lead to their immediate discharge under the policy he announced. In other words, DOJ is attempting to bury the fact that Trump probably lied in his Tweet when he intimated that this change of policy was the result of recommendations from generals and military experts, but their stonewalling leads to Judge Pechman’s obvious conclusion stated on March 14.