Cammermeyer v. Perry

Summary

A 28-year veteran of the Army and National Guard, and Chief Nurse of the Washington State National Guard, Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer was the highest-ranking service member to be discharged for being lesbian or gay. Among many other honors, she received a Bronze Star for her service in Vietnam and was selected as the Veterans Administration Nurse of the Year in 1985. After she was discharged based on her sexual orientation, Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of her discharge. Two years later, a federal district judge held that the military’s pre-“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban violated the equal protection and due process guarantees of the U.S. Constitution and ordered the Army to reinstate Cammermeyer to the Washington National Guard. The government did not appeal Cammermeyer’s right to be reinstated, but it asked the Ninth Circuit court of Appeals to strike the judge’s ruling from the books. The ruling took issue with the old ban as well as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The Ninth Circuit denied this request and sent the case back to district court, which refused to strike its original judgment in favor of Cammermeyer. Cammermeyer has now retired.

Context

An average of 900 service members a year are discharged from the Army for being gay under the government’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

Lambda Legal's Impact

Because the district court refused to strike its judgment in favor of Cammermeyer, a valid ruling critical of the military’s ban on gay people remains on the books. Cammermeyer’s case, which was dramatized in the film Serving in Silence, also helped educate the public about the unjustness of the military’s antigay policies. For over thirty years, Lambda Legal has challenged discriminatory policies against lesbians and gay men in the military, one of the country’s largest employers. Our litigation seeks recognition of the constitutional right of lesbian and gay service members to be judged by the same standards as all others.

History

  • 1992 After Cammermeyer’s discharge, Lambda Legal and the Northwest Womens’ Law Center file lawsuit in federal court in Washington state on her behalf. The lawsuit challenges both Cammermeyer’s discharge and the military’s regulations that mandated that lesbians and gay men be separated from the service.
  • June 1994 Victory! U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly holds that the former (pre “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”) ban on gays in the military was unconstitutional and orders the Army to reinstate Cammermeyer.
  • October 1996 The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dismisses the government’s appeal as moot, because the government was not challenging Cammermeyer’s reinstatement and had rescinded the regulations that were held unconstitutional. The Ninth Circuit denies the government’s request to vacate the district court’s ruling, sending the case back to the district court to consider whether that should be done.
  • 1997 The district court denies the government’s motion to vacate, maintaining the value of the victory as precedent.

Case Information

Status: Closed
Outcome: Landmark Case

Plaintiffs/Defendants

Margarethe Cammermeyer

Attorneys

Lambda Legal
Jon W. Davidson , Mary Newcombe, Beatrice Dohrn

Co-counsel/Cooperating Attorneys
Jeffrey Tilden, Michael Himes, Charles Bumer