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The fall of Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Thursday, Sep 29, 2011

Alum behind historic case speaks with students

-by Kelsey Schreiberg

More than 150 law students vied for seats at the lunchtime event “Conversations with the Dean,” featuring Dan Woods ’77, on Sept. 28. Woods was the lead attorney who represented the Log Cabin Republicans in the successful federal court challenge to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT).  Rasmussen, the event’s host, queried Woods before turning to the students for questions.  Woods, a partner at White & Case, LLP since 1996, shared insight about the landmark case with students.  

 Dan Woods '77, left, with Dean Robert K. Rasmussen

In 2004, after years as a trial lawyer, Woods filed a lawsuit against the United States government that questioned the constitutionality of DADT.  Six years later, the case went to trial last summer in federal court in Riverside, Calif.

The litigation team, which included three other USC Law alumni, believed it was un-American to force people out of the military based on the choices they made in their private lives.

“These are the people who want to shave their heads, who want to go to boot camp, who want to take the chance to fight for our constitutional rights while our government is trying to deprive them of theirs,” Woods said.  

Woods said he built his case around seven expert witnesses--including a political scientist, a sociologist, a psychiatrist, and an expert on foreign military affairs--in addition to a cross-section of testimonies from some of the 14,000 discharged servicemen, military doctors, linguists, lawyers, and translators.

“They told personal stories about how DADT affected them and how the way they were discharged weakened the military,” Woods said.  “Their stories put a personal face on the case before the judge.”

To compensate for the high number of discharged officers, the U.S. Army lowered its admission standards and allowed recruits with criminal records, including felony convictions, into the military.  Woods noted that 4,000 convicted felons joined the military under the moral waivers.

“I told the judge that the government would rather give a convicted felon a gun than give a gay man a typewriter,” Woods said.

Ultimately, after investing six years of his firm’s time and money, Woods’ biggest fear was that he might not win.

“I tried to downplay the historic significance of the case,” Woods said.  “I tried to present it as elements ‘one,’ ‘two,’ ‘three’ with the facts supporting these three elements."

His success is clear. Judge Virginia Phillips ruled against DADT. Following some further legal wrangling, on Sept. 20, the U.S. government asked the 9th circuit to vacate the judgment, essentially erasing all evidence of DADT’s existence as a U.S. policy.
Woods said that he believes the government is seeking to vacate the judgment so that President Barack Obama may take credit for repealing DADT. If the judgment is not vacated, the government could lose money because it would have to reexamine the parameters under which it granted severance pay to those who were discharged.

Woods explained, “If you’re discharged under DADT, even honorably, the severance pay you received was half of the severance pay that you would have received if you had been discharged normally.”

Woods has received dozens of awards and accolades for his work on the case; recently he was named one of the Los Angeles & San Francisco Daily Journal’s Top 100 lawyers.

-Photos by Lori Craig

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