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High court rejects lawsuit over gays in military law

  • Story Highlights
  • Ex-Army Capt. James Pietrangelo sued over "don't ask/don't tell" law
  • Pietrangelo had appealed case to U.S. Supreme Court
  • Justices without comment refuse to intervene
  • Obama administration had asked the high court not to take the case
By Bill Mears
CNN Supreme Court Producer
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A former Army captain who was dismissed under a federal law dealing with gays and lesbians in the military lost his appeal Monday at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene in the challenge to the "don't ask/don't tell" law.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene in the challenge to the "don't ask/don't tell" law.

James Pietrangelo and 11 other veterans had sued the government over the "don't ask/ don't tell" law passed in 1993.

Pietrangelo was the only one who appealed to the high court, but the justices without comment refused to intervene.

The provision forbids those in the military from openly acknowledging or revealing their homosexuality, and prevents the government from asking individual soldiers and sailors about their sexual orientation.

The Obama administration had asked the high court not to take the case, and White House officials had said they would not object to homosexuals being kicked out of the armed services.

During the presidential campaign last year, President Obama said he supported throwing out the federal law but has taken no specific action on the controversy.

The Justice Department said in a high court filing the law was "rationally related to the government's legitimate interest in military discipline and cohesion."

A federal appeals court in Boston, Massachusetts, had ruled against Pietrangelo, essentially ending his legal efforts. But a San Francisco, California-based federal appeals court ruled partially in favor of Maj. Margaret Witt, allowing her lawsuit against the Pentagon to move ahead. Those judges said the Air Force must prove the dismissal of the flight nurse would ensure troop readiness and cohesion.

Justices say state judge should have recused himself

In a separate ruling, the high court on Monday found a state judge acted improperly when he refused to remove himself from a 2006 civil appeal despite having received financial support during his campaign from the CEO of the key defendant.

Chief Justice Brent Benjamin of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals cast the deciding vote in favor of that company.

In a 5-4 ruling, the justices found that a perceived conflict of interest should have led to the judge's recusal.

"On these extreme facts the probability of actual bias rises to an unconstitutional level," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.

The issue has become a touchstone of a growing political debate over whether judicial election races -- which have become more expensive and contentious in recent years -- erode public confidence in the legal system.

The West Virginia case has attracted nationwide attention and was the basis for author John Grisham's 2008 best-seller, "The Appeal."

The case now goes back to the state courts, where Benjamin likely will have to pull out of a rehearing.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a narrow ruling on the specific facts of the West Virginia dispute, but the implications are likely to be felt nationwide. Thirty-nine states elect some or all of their judges.

The facts of the case read like a legal thriller. Businessman Don Blankenship, chairman of A.T. Massey Coal Co., spent $3 million supporting Benjamin's 2004 run for the judicial seat -- accounting for 60 percent of the money spent in support of his campaign.

Massey was involved in a decade-old business dispute with Hugh Caperton, owner of rival Harman Mining. Caperton accused Massey of unlawfully interfering with his business relations.

A jury agreed, and in 2002 awarded Harman Mining $50 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Massey waited four years to appeal. It was during those four years that Benjamin won his state high court seat.

In April 2006, Benjamin declined to recuse himself from Massey's appeal, which had reached his five-member court.

West Virginia, like most state and federal courts, leaves to an individual judge's discretion the decision to stay out of a case because of a potential conflict of interest.

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