WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court sided with the Trump administration Friday in a case about the Pentagon's effort to restrict military service by transgender people, but the ruling won't change who can serve or enlist at this point.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled Friday that a lower court judge was wrong to block the Pentagon from implementing plans to restrict the service of transgender individuals. The unsigned ruling will not allow the Pentagon to implement its policy, however, because other judges have entered orders blocking the administration in similar cases.
The administration has already asked the Supreme Court to weigh in. The high court could announce as early as this month if it will do so.
The appeals court ruling said the military's plan appears to rely on the "considered professional judgment" of "appropriate military officials." It noted that the plan "appears to permit some transgender individuals to serve in the military."
Military policy until a few years ago had barred service by transgender individuals. That changed under President Barack Obama's administration. The military announced in 2016 that transgender individuals already serving in the military would be allowed to serve openly. And the military set July 1, 2017, as the date when transgender individuals would be allowed to enlist.
But President Donald Trump's administration delayed the enlistment date, saying the issue needed further study. While that study was ongoing, the president tweeted in late July 2017 that the government would not allow "Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military." He later directed the military to return to its policy before the Obama administration changes.
Groups representing transgender individuals responded by suing the administration in the District of Columbia, Maryland, Washington state and California. The Trump administration lost early rounds in those cases, with courts issuing nationwide injunctions barring the administration from altering course. As a result, transgender individuals continue to serve openly and transgender individuals have been allowed to enlist in the military since Jan. 1, 2018.
In March 2018, the Trump administration announced that after studying the issue it was revising its policy. The new policy generally bars transgender individuals from serving or enlisting unless they serve "in their biological sex" and "do not seek to undergo gender transition." An exception allows the service of transgender service members who previously relied on the Obama-era rule. Groups representing transgender individuals have responded by arguing that the policy is essentially a ban on the service by transgender individuals.
The lawsuit in the District of Columbia was filed by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders. NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter called Friday's decision "a devastating slap in the face to transgender service members."
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said the administration was "pleased with the decision."
Two of the three judges who ruled in the case were nominated by Republican presidents. Judge Thomas Griffith was nominated by George W. Bush and Judge Stephen Williams was nominated by Ronald Reagan. The third judge, Robert Wilkins, was nominated by President Barack Obama.