A federal judge in Tacoma, Wash., ruled Friday that the Air Force violated the constitutional rights of a decorated flight nurse when it discharged her in 2007 under the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" military policy after learning of an affair she was having with a married woman.
U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton ordered the Air Force to reinstate Margaret Witt, an 18-year veteran of the branch, who achieved the rank of major before she was discharged three years ago for what was classified at the time as "homosexual conduct." Leighton found her termination violated her due process and equal protection rights. "Good flight nurses are hard to find," he said Friday
following a trial in which he determined that Witt's reinstatement would "not adversely affect unit morale or cohesion," The Seattle Times reported.
Leighton's ruling is the second in three weeks to undermine the legal foundation of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, the 17-year-old ban precluding homosexuals from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces.
It was unclear whether the Justice Department would appeal the ruling on behalf of the Air Force. For her part, Witt said following the decision: "I can't wait to just do my job. Go back to my unit and do what I'm supposed to do." The case involved no request for injunctive relief or any other remedy which would affect any other service members aside from Witt.
Leighton had forecast the result earlier in the week, following closing arguments, telling the parties that he was bound to apply the controlling legal standards imposed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The federal appeals panel had ruled in Witt's case in 2008 that the military could not discharge an openly gay service member under the contentious termination policy unless the discharge was demonstratively necessary to prevent an identifiable harm to unit morale. On Wednesday, Leighton was sharply critical of the Congress and the White House for their political inertia on the matter, saying of the need for judicial intervention, "This is not the way to run a railroad."
On Sept. 3, a federal judge in southern California ruled the policy unconstitutional as applied to all service members. In that case, U.S. District Judge Judge Virginia Phillips is now contemplating the scope of an injunction that could halt enforcement of the policy against any U.S. service members anywhere in the world. On Thursday, federal lawyers asked Phillips to limit the scope of her injunction.
Both President Barack Obama and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have publicly called for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."