Civil and Human Rights

Karnoski v. Trump

In Karnoski v. Trump, a federal district court considered the constitutionality of the Trump administration’s ban on transgender individuals serving openly in the military.

Case Summary

In July 2017, President Trump announced on Twitter that the U.S. military would no longer allow transgender individuals to openly serve in the armed forces. On August 25, he instated the ban as official federal policy by Presidential Memorandum. Ryan Karnoski, a transgender man who wishes to serve his country by joining the military, brought suit along with current military service members who are transgender, claiming that the ban violates the equal protection and due process guarantees of the Fifth Amendment and the free speech guarantee of the First Amendment.

CAC filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Karnoski and the other transgender military service members challenging this policy. Our brief makes three principal points. First, the Fifth Amendment guarantees equal protection for all and forbids the government from enacting policies that single out a class of individuals for disfavored legal status. Second, the government’s justifications for the ban on transgender service members—that it is needed to maintain unit cohesion and military effectiveness—are similar to justifications that were offered in favor of past military policies that discriminated on the basis of race, sexual orientation, and gender. Despite those fears, however, each of those policies was repealed without any negative effect on unit cohesion or military effectiveness, and in fact, military experts agree that a more inclusive service force actually strengthened the military’s effectiveness. Third, much like these prior discriminatory military policies, the Trump administration’s ban on transgender service members has no rational connection to a legitimate government interest. All of the evidence, including the military’s own data and research, confirms that open service by transgender people will not negatively affect unit cohesion or military effectiveness, and the ban therefore cannot withstand judicial review.

The District Court left in place the preliminary injunction preventing the military from implementing the ban. While it did not yet rule on the merits of plaintiffs’ constitutional claims, it did, citing CAC’s brief, note that the government’s claims that the ban is intended to “promote ‘military lethality and readiness’ and avoid ‘disrupt[ing] unit cohesion, or tax[ing] military resources’ are strikingly similar to justifications offered in the past to support the military’s exclusion and segregation of African American service members, its ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, and its policy preventing women from serving in combat roles.”

Case Timeline

  • January 31, 2018

    CAC files amicus brief

    W.D. Wash. Amicus Brief
  • April 13, 2018

    District court leaves in place the previously-issued preliminary injunction

  • April 30, 2018

    Government appeals to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals

  • April 30, 2018

    Government asks district court to stay the preliminary injunction pending appeal