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9th Circuit Instructs District Court on Next Stage in Trans Military Litigation

Posted on: June 18th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit issued a ruling on June 14 on several appeals filed by the Justice Department in Karnoski v. Trump, one of the lawsuits challenging President Trump’s transgender military policy.  The result was not a complete win for the government or the plaintiffs, but the case will go forward before U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman in Seattle using different legal tests than those she had employed in issuing the rulings that the government had appealed.  Because one of the other challenges to the policy is pending in a district court in Riverside, California, which is also within the 9th Circuit, the court’s ruling effectively applies to both cases.  Karnoski v. Trump, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 17878, 2019 WL 2479442 (9th Cir., June 14, 2019).

Since neither party is likely to be fully satisfied with the ruling, which does not fully embrace either party’s position on the appeals, it is possible that one or both will seek reconsideration by a larger panel of the circuit court.  In the 9th Circuit, such panels consist of the Chief Judge of the Circuit and ten active circuit judges drawn at random, together with any senior judges who sat on the panel.  The panel that issued the June 14 ruling had two senior judges – Raymond C. Fisher and Richard R. Clifton – and one active judge, Conseulo M. Callahan.  Fisher was appointed by Bill Clinton, while Clifton and Callahan were appointed by George W. Bush.  District Judge Pechman was appointed by Bill Clinton.

For purposes of simplicity, this description of where the lawsuit stands will refer to the policy announced by then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in June 2016 as the 2016 policy, the policy announced in tweets and a White House memorandum by President Donald Trump in July and August 2017 as the 2017 policy, and the policy recommended to Trump by then-Defense Secretary James Mattis in February 2018 as the 2018 policy.

The 2016 policy ended the long-standing regulatory ban on military service by transgender people, but delayed allowing transgender people to enlist until July 2017.  In June 2017, Secretary Mattis announced that the ban on enlistment would be extended to the end of 2017.  The July tweet and August 2017 memorandum announced a return to the ban on service and enlistment that predated the 2016 policy, but delayed re-implementation of the ban until March 2018, pending submission of an implementation plan to the president by Mattis, while providing that the ban on enlistment would remain in effect.

The plan Mattis recommended in February 2018, and that Trump authorized him to adopt, abandoned the total ban concept and is complicated to explain. The policy attempted to shift its focus, at least in terms of concept, from transgender status to the condition of gender dysphoria as described in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.  The 2018 plan allows some transgender people to serve under certain conditions, depending upon whether and when they were diagnosed with gender dysphoria, whether and when they intended to transition or had transitioned, and whether they were willing to serve in their gender as identified at birth.  People who had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria were barred from enlisting, and currently serving transgender personnel who had not been diagnosed and initiated the process of transitioning by the time the 2018 policy went into effect could continue serving only if they foreswore transitioning while in the service.  However, those who were serving and had begun transitioning before the 2018 policy went into effect could continue serving in the gender to which they had transitioned.  People who identify as transgender but have not been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and are content to serve in the gender identified at birth can enlist and serve, but must leave the service if they are subsequently diagnosed with gender dysphoria.  The bottom line, which was a motivation for Trump’s initial tweet, is that once the 2018 policy was in place, the military would not be funding sex-reassignment surgery for anyone and people could not transition in the military.

Beginning in August 2017 and continuing through that summer, challengers file four lawsuits challenging the 2017 policy on constitutional grounds in Baltimore, Washington (D.C.), Seattle, and Riverside (California).  All of the major LGBT litigation groups were representing the plaintiff in one or more of the cases.  Within months, each of the federal district judges had granted motions for preliminary injunctions to prevent the 2017 policy from going into effect.  In order to issue the injunctions, all four judges had to find that some or all of the plaintiffs’ legal arguments had a fair chance of succeeding on the merits, and that the injunctions were necessary to prevent irreparable harm to the plaintiffs by preserving the status quo without harming the public interest.  The district judges refused to “stay” their injunctions, and on the east coast they were backed up by the 4th and D.C. Circuits, leading the government to abandon an attempt to appeal the denial of stays for the west coast cases in the 9th Circuit.  The district judges also rejected motions by the government to dismiss the cases.  Thus, on January 1, 2018, the Defense Department was required to accept enlistment applications from transgender people, and the 2016 policy remained in effect for transgender people who were actively serving in the military.

Meanwhile, Secretary Mattis appointed a Task Force as directed by the August 2017 White House memo to prepare a report in support of an implementation policy recommendation, which he submitted to the White House in February 2018, urging the president to revoke the 2017 policy and to allow Mattis to implement his recommended policy.  The Task Force was described in various ways at various times by the government, but the names and titles of the members were not listed in the written report released to the public, and the government has resisted discovery requests for their identity and information about how the Task Force report was prepared.

Once Secretary Mattis had the go-ahead from Trump to implement his recommendation, the Justice Department moved in all four courts to get the preliminary injunctions lifted, arguing that the 2018 policy was sufficiently different from the 2017 policy to render the existing injunctions irrelevant.  All four of the district judges rejected that argument and refused to dissolve or modify their injunctions.  The government appealed and ultimately was able to persuade the Supreme Court earlier this year to stay the injunctions and allow the policy to go into effect early in April. Although the 2018 policyhas been in effect for over two months, there have not been reports about discharges of serving transgender personnel.

Significantly, the 9th Circuit panel implied without ruling that the preliminary injunction against the 2017 policy seemed justified.

Meanwhile, the parties in the four cases were litigating about the plaintiffs’ attempts to conduct discovery on order to surface the information necessary to prove their constitutional claims against the policy.  The government fought the discovery requests doggedly, arguing that the internal workings of its military policy-making should not be subject to disclosure in civil litigation, referring to but not formally invoking concepts of decisional privilege and executive privilege, which courts have recognized to varying extent in prior cases challenging government policies.

In the Karnoski case in Seattle, Judge Pechman was highly skeptical about the government’s arguments, having questioned whether the policies were motivated by politics rather than professional military judgment, and she issued an order for the government to comply with a large portion of the requests for documents and information after prolonged negotiations by the lawyers largely came to naught.  The government appealed her discovery orders to the 9th Circuit, together with refusal to rethink the preliminary injunction in light of the substitution of the 2018 policy for the 2017 policy.

The June 14 opinion describes how the case should go forward, taking account of the Supreme Court’s action in having stayed the preliminary injunctions but not dissolved them.  The 9th Circuit panel agreed with the D.C. Circuit, which had concluded earlier in the year that the D.C. district court was wrong to conclude that the 2018 policy was just a version of the 2017 policy with some exceptions.  The appellate courts held that the 2018 policy recommended by Mattis was no longer the total ban announced in 2017, so the district court should evaluate the 2018 policy.

The court rejected the government’s argument that shifting the exclusionary policy from “transgender status” to “gender dysphoria” eliminated the equal protection issue, finding from the wording of the Task Force report and the policy as summarized in writing by Mattis that the policy continued to target transgender people in various ways, regardless whether they have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, through the conditions it places on their service.  This was a “win” for the plaintiffs on an important contested point.

Judge Pechman had concluded that gender identity is a “suspect classification,” so for purposes of evaluating the constitutionality of the policy under an Equal Protection challenge, it should be presumed unconstitutional with a heavy burden placed on the government to prove a compelling need for the policy.  The 9th Circuit panel decided there was not sufficient precedent to support that approach, but did agree with the position taken by the district judges in the other three cases that the policy should be subjected to “heightened scrutiny,” similar to the approach courts take in sex discrimination cases, but tempered by consideration of the degree to which the policy merits deference as a product of professional military judgment.

Judge Pechman had concluded that the 2017 policy did not merit judicial deference, because there was no evidence before the court that it was the product of professional military judgment.  Rather, as all the district judges had concluded, based on the way the policy was announced in a surprise tweet and the failure of the government to provide any information about how it was formulated, the court’s analysis should not be tempered by judicial deference.

Now, however, said the 9th Circuit panel, the government had described, in a general way, how Mattis’s Task Force was put together, and t the 2018 policy was allegedly the result of many meetings, study, much interviewing of military personnel, and a 44—page report.  If one accepts the government’s description of the process – still not identifying by name the Task Force members or getting into any real detail about the basis for their conclusions – the court said, there is an argument that the 2018 policy should be accorded judicial deference, but whether to do so, and how that would interrelate with the heightened scrutiny standard, were questions to be addressed by the district court.  Thus, the task for Judge Pechman now is to determine whether the 2018 policy is sufficiently a product of military judgment to justify applying a deferential standard of review.  Some degree of cooperating by the government in the discovery process is crucially necessary for such an analysis to take place.

However, as to discovery, the 9th Circuit panel expressed concern that Judge Pechman had not accorded sufficient weight to the concepts of decisional and executive privilege in formulating her discovery order, and directed that she refer to guidelines set out in some recent court opinions.  In particular, the court disagreed with her order that the government provide detailed privilege logs with descriptions of all the documents for which there were privilege concerns, and suggested that an approach focused on broadly described categories of documents and information could suffice for an initial determination of the degree to which privilege might be claimed to block disclosure.

The bottom line is that the Karnoski case goes back to Judge Pechman for a fresh analysis of whether plaintiffs should be entitled to a preliminary injunction against the 2018 policy, using heightened scrutiny and taking account of privilege claims in the discovery process, along the lines outlined by the court.  This opinion also sends a message to the district court in Riverside, where similar government motions are pending.  Meanwhile, the discovery battles continue in the cases pending in Baltimore and Washington.

In light of the Trump Administration’s general policy of fighting against demands for disclosure of internal executive branch decision-making, whether by Congressional committees or litigants, it is difficult to predict when there will be sufficient discovery to provide a basis for further rulings on preliminary injunctions or the ultimate merits of the four court challenges.  The lawsuits succeed in blocking implementation of the total ban and the 2017 policy, and in delaying implementation of the 2018 policy for more than a year.

The litigation will not be finally resolved before Inauguration Day in January 2021 unless the Trump Administration is willing to negotiate some sort of compromise settlement satisfactory to the plaintiffs.  If any of the current Democratic presidential candidates is elected and takes office, a quickly-issued executive order restoring the 2016 policy could put an end to the entire transgender military service drama and restore sanity to an issue that has been clouded by politics and substantial misinformation, such as Trump’s recent grossly-exaggerated statements about the cost of health care for transgender personnel.