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Witt-less: A History and Analysis of the U.S. Military’s Failure to Comply With The Ninth Circuit’s Due Process Standard for ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Ari Freilich[1]

Please click here for a PDF version of the article.

I. Introduction

In its May 2008 ruling in Witt v. Dep’t of the Air Force,[2] the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals became the first court in the nation to subject Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (“DADT”) to a standard of “heightened scrutiny” and, more generally, to explicitly require more than deferential rational basis justification for “government attempts to intrude upon the personal and private lives of homosexuals[.]”[3] But Witt did more than simply articulate an abstract due process standard for subsequent gay rights cases. Surprisingly scant attention has been paid to the fact that, in applying heightened scrutiny to DADT, Witt mandated a new, significant, evidentiary burden shift against the military in discharging servicemembers for their sexual orientation. The Witt Court invalidated DADT’s blanket, mandatory discharge policy in favor of a fact-specific standard requiring actual, individualized proof of military necessity in order to substantiate a servicemember’s discharge under DADT. That decision, and the “Witt Standard” borne of it, should have been a watershed moment for gay rights in America because the Ninth Circuit Court afforded significantly expanded substantive due process protections to gay men and women within its jurisdiction.[4] The decision should also have had an immediate impact on gay servicemembers’ right to serve openly in the U.S. Armed Forces. Although the military’s highest ranking officials acknowledged the Witt Standard as binding and approvingly cited it in federal court cases, the military simply, absolutely, and unconstitutionally ignored the decision in practice. Continue reading Witt-Less: A History And Analysis Of The U.S. Military’s Failure To Comply With The Ninth Circuit’s Due Process Standard For ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’