The Trump administration was wrong to claim last week it could begin to implement a ban on transgender troops, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said in a decision issued Tuesday that rebuked officials for insisting a court order blocking the ban since 2017 had been lifted.
“Defendants were incorrect in claiming that there was no longer an impediment,” says Kollar-Kotelly’s notice in US District Court in Washington, DC. “Defendants remain bound by this Court’s preliminary injunction to maintain the status quo.”
The decision makes clear the Pentagon may not yet implement a ban on transgender troops, despite several claims by the Justice Department last week that it was free of any blockade on enacting new policy to block transgender recruits from the armed forces.
The administration released a memo last week saying that it planned to enact the ban next month after the Justice Department said in a court filing “there is no longer any impediment” that stopped them from doing so.
“We are grateful for the district court’s clarity in stating, unequivocally, that the injunction against the transgender military ban remains in place,” Jennifer Levi, an attorney for GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, a group representing the challengers, told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday.
Levi and other lawyers challenging the ban had argued Trump officials were running roughshod over courts when they issued the ban last week.
“Plaintiffs will continue to challenge the government’s efforts to reinstate an unfair and discriminatory policy against transgender people,” Levi added. “And, for now, the military cannot take any adverse action against transgender troops or recruits who meet all current standards of service.”
Still, it wasn’t immediately clear if Kollar-Kotelly’s decision would change a timeline to implement the ban, which the Pentagon said will take effect on April 12, due to pending action from an appeals court.
The underlying legal situation is complicated. The case is one of four in which judges issued nationwide injunctions that blocked the policy from being implemented. Courts had lifted three of the injunctions while all of the legal challenges continue — though the status of this fourth injunction in the DC court was disputed.
The Justice Department argued that when the DC Court of Appeals vacated the injunction in January, it ceased to exist and the Pentagon was free to instate a ban. LGBT advocacy lawyers countered that the appellate court still hadn’t issued a mandate to lift the injunction, because a series of procedural steps had to first be undertaken while the plaintiffs decide to request a rehearing.
The Trump administration issued its memo to set up the ban anyway.
That led to Tuesday’s decision from Kollar-Kotelly.
“On October 30, 2017, this Court ordered Defendants to maintain the status quo as it relates to the accession and retention of transgender individuals in the military,” she said. “That preliminary injunction remains in place until the D.C. Circuit issues its mandate vacating the preliminary injunction.”
The plaintiffs in the DC court have until March 29 to request a rehearing before the full bench of judges at the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. Doing so could extend the timeline for the injunction to remain in place.
In June 2016, the Obama administration lifted a decadeslong ban on transgender people serving in the armed forces after finding they wouldn't harm the military. Trump reversed that decision in 2017, saying that transgender people would render the military “burdened with medical costs and disruption.”
Trump formalized his policy in a memorandum that August — but courts issued preliminary injunctions putting Trump’s ambitions on hold. In an effort to bypass those injunctions, Trump’s policy evolved in February 2018, when former defense secretary James Mattis recommended banning most transgender personnel but allowing those who’d already joined and transitioned to remain in the ranks, which was the blueprint for the ban released this month.