Skip to main content

Repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' is inevitable

By Christopher Wolf, Special to CNN
tzleft.wolf.courtesy.jpg
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Christopher Wolf says Senate blocked DADT repeal, even after House, judge say it's wrong
  • He recalls defending a sailor in 1998 over DADT; judge slammed policy as "discrimination"
  • 12 years later California judge ruled DADT unconstitutional, too late for many, he says
  • Wolf: Day will come when gays can say, as with segregation, country was wrong

Editor's note: Christopher Wolf is a privacy lawyer who has represented gay service members targeted for expulsion by the military.

(CNN) -- Senate Republicans successful in blocking the repeal Tuesday of "don't ask, don't tell," the military's discriminatory policy on gays and lesbians in the military, obviously did not read or simply chose to ignore a California federal judge's ruling several weeks ago that the policy violates fundamental constitutional rights.

Given the opportunity to undo the bigotry that was written into law 17 years ago, the senators chose not to follow the lead of the House of Representatives, which voted in May to repeal the law. Instead the Senate opted to pander to socially conservative voters. For now, at least, the law remains on the books.

But the march to repeal or invalidation must and will resume. The unfairness and wastefulness of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy has been demonstrated repeatedly.

Twelve years ago I handled a case that by itself showed the absurdity and mean-spirited nature of the law. In 1998, I represented a highly decorated 17-year veteran of the United States Navy who had served honorably and continuously since he was 19 years old.

Video: 'Don't ask, don't tell' change fails
Video: Dems react to 'don't ask'
Video: 'Don't ask, don't tell' on the line
RELATED TOPICS

Out of the blue, the Navy decided to kick him out of the service because he was gay, and not based on anything he did as a sailor. (I was called into the case the night before the discharge was to take effect.)

At the time of the Navy's decision to discharge him, he was the senior-most enlisted man aboard the United States nuclear submarine USS Chicago, the sole source of income for his mother and nearing retirement eligibility.

The "offense" triggering the Navy's witch hunt was an e-mail the sailor had sent from his AOL account seeking donations of toys for the children of his shipmates at Christmas. (His AOL username made the Navy officials suspect the sailor might be gay, but nothing in the contents of the e-mail or anything else in the sailor's behavior in the service justified what the Navy did.)

The Navy decided to go on a "search and destroy" mission against the service member (those are the words of the judge hearing the case), when it asked AOL to get information about the sailor to confirm he was gay.

Then, Judge Stanley Sporkin -- formerly general counsel of the SEC and CIA, so no bleeding heart liberal -- found that the Navy had violated federal electronic privacy law by demanding information from AOL to make its case against the sailor, and that it had violated the strictures of the "don't ask" part of the military policy on gay and lesbian service members. He stopped the Navy from throwing out a distinguished service member in light of its illegal activity.

The case made news at the time. The decision was a courageous one and against the conventional wisdom that Congress had accommodated gays and lesbians just fine with "don't ask, don't tell" and it was not up to civilians to tell the military how to operate.

Sporkin wrote in his opinion that "It is self-evident that a person's sexual orientation does not affect that individual's performance in the workplace. At this point in history, our society should not be deprived of the many accomplishments provided by the people who happen to be gay."

He said the court "cannot understand why the Navy would seek to discharge an officer who has served his country in a distinguished manner just because he might be gay" and that the case "vividly underscores the folly of a policy that systematically excludes a whole class of persons who have served this country proudly and in the highest tradition of excellence."

He acknowledged that the case specifically did not reach any of the constitutional issues underscoring the "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" policy, but he felt compelled to note that "the defenses mounted against gays in the military have been tried before in our nation's history -- against blacks and women." Sporkin concluded: "Surely, it is time to move beyond this vestige of discrimination and misconception of gay men and women."

Twelve years later, a successor of Sporkin's on the federal bench in California decided just that -- that it is time to eliminate discrimination, as a matter of constitutional law. In the meantime, scores of qualified and committed service members have been ousted based solely on a policy whose foundation is unconstitutional bigotry.

They did not have a Sporkin to take up their cause of justice. They will never get their careers back, or purge the trauma of being labeled second-class citizens, and neither will our country be able to recover their valuable lost service.

Although the Senate stopped repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" in its tracks yesterday, the California ruling will work its way through the appellate process. In the end, this will turn around and the day will come when gay and lesbian service members and their allies can say we were right all along, and just as in the days of segregation, the country was wrong.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christopher Wolf.