A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled on January 4 that U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly should not have denied a motion earlier this year by the Justice Department to dissolve a preliminary injunction she issued more than a year ago to block the Trump Administration’s ban on transgender military service from going into effect. The court did not issue a formal opinion, instead releasing a “Judgement” that was not designated for publication, although it indicated that “separate opinions” by the judges “will be filed at a later date.” The case is now called Jane Doe 2 v. Shanahan, as Trump has been removed as an individual defendant, and Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan is now the lead defendant.
The ruling, although quickly described in the press as a victory for the Trump Administration, will have no immediate effect, because nationwide preliminary injunctions against implementation of the ban issued by three other U.S. District Courts remain in effect. However, the explanation issued by the judges marks the first time that any federal judge has found it appropriate to adopt a deferential standard of review either to Trump’s original policy declaration pronounced through twitter messages on July 26, 2017, to a subsequent White House memo amplifying the policy, or to the policy adopted for implementation by former Defense Secretary James Mattis with the president’s approval in February 2018.
In her October 30, 2017, ruling granting the plaintiffs’ motion for a nationwide preliminary injunction against implementation of the ban, Judge Kollar-Kotelly found that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on the merits of their claim that the ban announced by Trump in July and amplified in the August 2017 memorandum violated their equal protection rights under the 5th Amendment, and allowing the ban to go into effect would cause irreparable injury to the plaintiffs while not shown to be harmful to national security, as alleged by the government. See 275 F. Supp.3d 167.
Judge Kollar-Kotelly was the first to enjoin the ban, but three other district courts issued similar opinions authorizing virtually identical nationwide preliminary injunctions over the ensuing weeks, from courts located in Baltimore, Maryland, Seattle, Washington, and Riverside, California.
While the litigation was going on in the district courts, Secretary Mattis appointed a task force as directed in the White House memorandum, to devise an implementation plan for the ban. This was submitted to the president in February, 2018, in response to which he issued a new memorandum revoking his prior memorandum and authorizing Mattis to implement the plan he had proposed. Mattis’s plan was accompanied by a Report purportedly devised by this Task Force of “experts” (none of them named in the document or otherwise), although knowledgeable observers noted striking resemblances to articles published by conservative think-tanks opposed to transgender rights.
After Mattis adopted the plan for implementation, the Justice Department filed motions in the four district courts arguing that the preliminary injunctions should be dissolved because they were directed at a policy that had been revoked, and the “new” Mattis policy was sufficiently different from what Trump had originally announced to change the analysis. Thus far, three of the district courts have denied the Justice Department’s motion, which is still pending in the fourth court. The three judges who denied the motion all concluded that the Mattis policy was substantially the same as the Trump policy that they had preliminarily enjoined, and that no new development justified allowing the ban to go into effect while the lawsuits played out. In the fourth case, the judge who issued the injunction retired in June 2018 and the case was assigned to a new judge, who has yet to rule on the motion.
The Justice Department appealed the three rulings to the D.C. and 9th Circuit Courts of Appeals. As of January 4, the 9th Circuit had not issued a ruling on the appeal, but had refused to stay the injunctions issued by the district judges in Seattle and Riverside.
Impatient at the pace of litigation, the Solicitor General filed Petitions in the Supreme Court late in November seeking to leapfrog the courts of appeals and have the Supreme Court directly address whether the preliminary injunctions should be lifted, and then filed motions with the Court in all three cases in December, seeking a “stay” of the injunctions or their narrowing to apply only to the plaintiffs rather than to have nationwide effect. Those petitions and motions had been scheduled by the Court to be discussed in its private conference on January 11.
The D.C. Circuit panel that ruled on January 4 consisted of Judges Thomas B. Griffith (appointed by George W. Bush), Robert L. Wilkins (appointed by Barack Obama), and Senior Judge Stephen F. Williams (appointed by Ronald Reagan).
The panel found that Judge Kollar-Kotelly had “clearly” erred in concluding that the Mattis policy adopted in February 2018 was substantially the same as the Trump policy that she had preliminarily enjoined in October 2017. The court pointed out that unlike the original policy, Mattis’s plan was not a total ban. It “grandfathers” currently serving transgender personnel who had “come out” in reliance on former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s lifting of the long-standing ban on transgender military service effective July 1, 2016, many of whom then initiated transition, including in some cases complete surgical gender affirmation, and were successfully serving in the gender with which they identify. Mattis would let them continue to serve.
Furthermore, seeking to escape the equal protection arguments made by the plaintiffs and preliminarily accepted by the district judges, Mattis’s “experts” had reconfigured the ban to be based not on transgender identity, but rather on a diagnosis of “gender dysphoria,” the term used in the most recent addition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Now the government was arguing that it was disqualifying people who had been diagnosed with a professionally recognized medical condition, which the DSM describes in terms of symptoms that – at least as described in the DSM – would sound disabling.
Under Mattis’s version of the policy, anybody diagnosed with gender dysphoria would be disqualified from enlisting or from continuing to serve, unless they were “grandfathered” under the policy. Individuals who identify as transgender but have not been diagnosed with gender dysphoria would be allowed to enlist and serve, provided they did not seek to transition and would serve in the gender with which they were identified at birth, called by the policy their “biological sex.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the four cases have pointed out that this is a semantic game, but the court of appeals indulges the government’s distinction between status and medical diagnosis, pointing out that the lawyers for the plaintiffs have stated in their briefs and arguments that not all transgender people are diagnosed with gender dysphoria or seek to transition. Thus, in the view of the court, agreeing with the Justice Department, the policy does not ban service by transgender people, as such – just by those diagnosed with gender dysphoria or who wish to transition and serve in other than their sex identified at birth.
The district judges had found that in practical terms this amounted to the same transgender ban that Trump had proclaimed, with the exception of the “grandfathered” personnel, estimated at about 900 people according to the January 4 D.C. Circuit ruling. But the court of appeals disagreed, finding it different.
Furthermore, said the court, since Mattis claimed to have adopted this policy on the recommendation of an “expert” Task Force that had produced a report, it was entitled to the judicial deference normally accorded to military personnel policies. For purposes of deciding on preliminary injunctive relief, the court of appeals found that the district court should have essentially taken the Justice Department’s representation of the policy at face value and not concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their equal protection claim.
At the same time, the D.C. panel said that it was not speaking to the ultimate merits of the case. The court said that it was vacating the preliminary injunction but “without prejudice,” which means that it is possible that after discovery has been concluded, the plaintiffs could come back and try to persuade the court that the policy was not entitled to deference and was not justified for the purposes cited by the government. This does not allow the ban to go into effect, as noted above, because nationwide preliminary injunctions remain in effect in three other cases.
Since the D.C. Circuit’s ruling gives the government exactly what it sought in its appeal, the Solicitor General should be withdrawing his petition and motion from the Supreme Court in this case. But since the 9th Circuit has not ruled on the other two appeals, the Petitions filed in those cases will still be before the Supreme Court at its January 11 conference. And the D.C. Circuit’s ruling may influence the district court in Baltimore, which has yet to rule on the government’s motion to dissolve the injunction in that case.
The plaintiffs are represented by Kevin Matthew Lamb, Paul Reinherz Quitma Wolfson, Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale & Dorr, LLP, Washington, DC, Adam M. Cambier, Christopher R. Looney, Harriet Hoder, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP, Boston, MA, Alan E. Schoenfeld, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr, LLP, New York, NY, Amy Whelan, Christopher F. Stoll, Shannon P. Minter, National Center for Lesbian Rights, San Francisco, CA, Claire Laporte, Daniel L. McFadden, Kathleen M. Brill, Matthew E. Miller, Michael J. Licker, Rachel C. Hutchinson, Foley Hoag, LLP, Boston, MA, Jennifer Levi, Mary L. Bonauto, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, Boston, MA, and Nancy Lynn Schroeder, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP, Los Angeles, CA.