This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.
A skilled Air Force flight nurse got the justice due her in a Tacoma courtroom Friday, but military order took a beating in the process.
Maj. Margaret Witt of Spokane won her fight to be reinstated four years after the military discharged her for being gay. U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton ruled that her presence did not adversely affect unit morale or cohesion.
It was the first judicial application of the so-called “Witt standard,” established by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2008 as a caveat to the military’s 17-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Witt easily met her namesake standard: Several members of her squadron testified that her firing hadn’t preserved unit morale, cohesion and troop readiness – it had hurt them.
Her legal win was, in Judge Leighton’s words, a victory in gays’ long fight for civil rights. It also was a setback for equal treatment and military discipline.
The Witt standard is a 9th Circuit precedent and therefore provides relief only to gay troops in the Western states that make up the circuit. It also creates a subjective and ultimately unworkable benchmark for determining whether the military has grounds to expel a gay service member.
The Air Force argued convincingly during the Witt trial that all regulations must be enforced uniformly to maintain order and morale.
Lt. Gen Charles E. Stenner, chief of the Air Force Reserve, told the court: “If you apply the rules consistently, then all is well. If you apply them inconsistently, it leads to a festering discussion. It leads to a loss of readiness, really.”
The military is grounded in uniform, bright-line standards that help preserve order in often chaotic situations. Disparate enforcement of rules – or worse yet, making personnel decisions by unit referendum – turns the bright lines fuzzy.
The Witt standard may serve a service member whose career is unfairly threatened, but it’s no way to run a military. The right way to dismantle don’t ask, don’t tell isn’t through piecemeal court rulings but in one fell – and orderly – legislative blow.
It’s up to Congress to finish the job it started when the House voted earlier this year to repeal the policy once the president and military leaders certified that it would not harm troop readiness, recruiting or retention.
The Senate should have followed suit by now – and might have last week had Majority Leader Harry Reid not gummed up the works with maneuverings on a defense spending bill.
Democratic leaders attempting to use the legislation as a stage for electioneering rejected Republicans’ attempts to do the same, foiling consideration of not just the defense bill but also the don’t ask, don’t tell repeal attached to it.
If Democrats are serious about allowing gays to serve openly in the military, they should submit the “don’t ask” repeal back to a straight up-or-down vote immediately after the election.
To do otherwise is to perpetuate uneven justice for troops and an unholy mess for the military.