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posted Friday, October 1, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 40
Court rules in favor of Major Witt Witt: 'I can't wait to rejoin my unit.'
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Court rules in favor of Major Witt Witt: 'I can't wait to rejoin my unit.'

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

On September 24, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' (DADT), the discriminatory military policy barring Gays and Lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces, was dealt a loss when U.S. Federal District Court Judge Ronald Leighton ruled in favor of Major Margaret Witt.

Witt, a decorated U.S. Air Force flight nurse who had been dismissed on grounds of homosexual conduct, fought to keep her career intact. After six days of trial in Tacoma, Washington, the Court found that Major Witt's sexual orientation does not negatively impact unit morale or cohesion, and Judge Leighton ordered the U.S. Air Force to reinstate her.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Washington attorneys have directly represented Major Witt since her case began in 2006.

'I'm thrilled about the decision today. I appreciate the Court's belief in the professionalism of the military,' Witt said upon hearing the judge's ruling. 'Many people forget that the U.S. military is the most diverse workforce in the world - we are extremely versed in adaptation. Thousands of men and women who are Gay and Lesbian honorably serve this country in our military. Wounded personnel never asked me about my sexual orientation; they were just glad to see me. I can't wait to rejoin my unit.'

From 1997 to 2003, Major Witt was in a committed relationship with another woman, a civilian. In the summer of 2004, Witt was notified that the Air Force had begun an investigation into an allegation that she had engaged in homosexual conduct. In November 2004, she was placed on unpaid leave and told she could no longer participate in any military duties, pending formal separation proceedings.

In March 2006, the Air Force informed Major Witt that she was being administratively discharged on grounds of homosexual conduct. The following month, the ACLU filed papers for Major Witt challenging the discharge.

According to ACLU Washington officials, the first breakthrough in the case came in 2008 when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Air Force must prove that discharging Major Witt is necessary for purposes of military readiness. Although the ruling left in place the military's DADT policy, it sent the case back to trial court, saying that before discharging a soldier under the policy, the military must prove that the individual's conduct actually hurts morale and unit cohesion. This requirement is now known as the 'Witt Standard.' The lawsuit has drawn national attention, so much so that at her confirmation hearings, then-Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan discussed the significance of the 'Witt Standard' established by the case.

'Today we heard the hammer of justice strike for major Witt. We look forward to the day when all members of our military can serve our country without invidious discrimination. To discharge her simply because of her sexual orientation was entirely unfair to her and unwise for the military, which needs her significant skills,' said ACLU of Washington Executive Director Kathleen Taylor.

ACLU of Washington Legal Director Sarah Dunne said, 'The U.S. military integrated different races and women over the last 50 years. There is zero evidence to suggest that Gay and Lesbian soldiers can't serve openly. The time for DADT has ended. America is in a different place, and so is the U.S. military.'

According to Judge Leighton, the military provided no evidence that Major Witt's sexual orientation or conduct caused a problem in the performance of her military duties - on the contrary, the ACLU had several of her military colleagues testify that her forced absence is what harmed her unit's morale.

In a previous military case, ACLU of Washington represented Army Sergeant Perry Watkins, who was dismissed in 1981 when then-President Ronald Reagan decided no homosexuals could serve in the military. In 1989, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that, as a matter of basic fairness, the Army could not discharge Watkins since the military had known he was Gay when they drafted him in 1968.

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