TACOMA – A lawyer for a decorated flight nurse discharged for being gay urged a federal judge Tuesday to reinstate her to the Air Force Reserve, and the judge indicated he might have no other choice.
U.S. District Judge Ronald B. Leighton said he would issue a ruling Friday in the closely watched case of former Maj. Margaret Witt. As her trial closed, he expressed strong doubts about government arguments seeking to have her dismissal upheld.
The judge’s comments came a few hours after Senate Republicans blocked legislation to repeal the 1993 “don’t ask, don’t tell” law on gays serving in the military.
Gay rights advocates considered the Senate vote a setback, but it focused attention even more on legal challenges to the law – including Witt’s case and a federal case in California in which a judge found earlier this month that the law violates the free speech and due process rights of gay service members.
In 2006, Leighton rejected Witt’s claims that the Air Force violated her rights when it fired her under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. An appeals court panel overruled him two years later and said the military can’t fire people for being gay unless it shows their dismissal was necessary to further military goals.
The ruling left it to Leighton to determine whether her firing met that standard. At the end of a six-day trial, he suggested the ruling tied his hands.
“I made my call with regard to whether this act was constitutional,” he said. “My colleagues – my friends – said, ‘Ron, you got it wrong,’ ” Leighton said during an extensive back-and-forth with a Justice Department lawyer. “They told me what I needed to do, what I needed to ask.”
Witt, of Spokane, joined the Air Force in 1987 and was suspended in 2004, just short of retirement, after her commanders learned she was in a relationship with a civilian woman. She was a flight nurse with an aeromedical evacuation squadron responsible for transporting and caring for injured soldiers.
Her attorneys, led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, insisted that Witt was well-respected and liked by her colleagues, that her sexuality never caused problems in the unit, and that her firing actually hurt military goals such as morale, unit cohesion and troop readiness. Several members of the squadron testified to that effect and said they would welcome Witt back to the unit.
Lawyers for the Air Force said such evidence was irrelevant. Military personnel decisions can’t be run by unit referendum, they said.