Clinton v. Goldsmith 1999

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Clinton v. Goldsmith 1999

Petitioner: William J. Clinton, President of the United States, et al.

Respondent: James Goldsmith

Petitioner's Claim: That the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces lacked authority to review President Clinton's decision to drop an officer from the Air Force.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Michael R. Dreeden

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: John M. Economidy

Justices for the Court: Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter (writing for the Court), John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas

Justices Dissenting: None

Date of Decision: May 17, 1999

Decision: The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals' order, which had stopped President Clinton from dropping Goldsmith from the Air Force.

Significance: With Clinton, the Court said military officers must follow the proper legal channels to challenge a decision by the president of the United States.

James Goldsmith was a major in the U.S. Air Force. Goldsmith also was HIV-positive, which means he had the virus that causes AIDS. Because people can transmit HIV during sexual intercourse, Goldsmith's superior told him to inform his sexual partners about his condition. Goldsmith's superior also told him to take precautions during sexual intercourse to avoid giving the virus to his partners.

Goldsmith violated this order by having unprotected sexual intercourse with a fellow officer and a civilian. The Air Force court-martialed Goldsmith for his disobedience. The court-martial convicted Goldsmith of disobeying an order from a superior officer, aggravated assault with means likely to produce death or serious harm, and battery. Goldsmith received a sentence of six years in prison and forfeiture of $2,500 of his salary each month for six years.

Roll call

Officers who spend a lot of time in military jail are costly to the federal government because they still receive pay. In 1996, Congress passed a law giving the President power to drop officers from the rolls after they spend six months in jail as a result of a court-martial sentence. Officers dropped from the rolls forfeit all military pay. In 1996, the Air Force notified Goldsmith that he was going to be dropped from the Air Force's rolls.

At the time, Goldsmith said he was having trouble getting his HIV medication in jail. Goldsmith filed a case with the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals (AFCCA) under the All Writs Act to get his medication. The All Writs Act allows federal courts to issue orders needed to carry out their powers.

The function of the AFCCA, however, is to review cases decided by court-martials. The AFCCA is not a place for individual requests, like Goldsmith's request for medication. Because of this, the AFCCA ruled that it lacked jurisdiction, or power, to grant Goldsmith's request.

Goldsmith appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF), which reviews decisions by courts in the military branches. Because the Air Force released Goldsmith from confinement before the CAAF decided the case, the CAAF did not have to consider Goldsmith's request for HIV medication.

Goldsmith, however, argued that President William J. Clinton and the Air Force would violate the Constitution if they dropped him from the Air Force's rolls. Goldsmith said dropping him would violate the Double Jeopardy Clause, which prevents the government from punishing people twice for the same crime. Goldsmith said it also would violate the Ex Post Facto Clause, which prevents the government from using a law to convict a defendant for something that was not a crime when the defendant did it. When Goldsmith violated his superior's order, there was no law that the President could drop Goldsmith from the rolls. Congress enacted that law later.

The CAAF ruled in Goldsmith's favor. Using the All Writs Act, it ordered President Clinton and various other executive officials not to drop Goldsmith from the Air Force's rolls. President Clinton and the executive officials took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The issue was whether the CAAF had the power to prevent President Clinton from acting under Congress's law.

Clinton prevails

With a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of President Clinton. Justice David Souter delivered the Court's decision. Justice Souter said Congress created the CAAF to review sentences imposed by court-martials. Dropping Goldsmith from the rolls was not part of his court-martial sentence. It was independent action by President Clinton under a law of Congress. The CAAF had no power to review that action.


H omosexual conduct is unlawful in the military and is grounds for being court-martialed and discharged. When William J. Clinton became president in 1993, he wanted to end discrimination against homosexuals in the military. Political pressure, however, forced him to accept a new policy called "Don't ask, don't tell." Congress made the policy a law in 1994.

Under the policy, military authorities are not supposed to ask officers or enlisted members about their sexual orientation. In return, homosexuals are not supposed to reveal their sexuality or engage in homosexual conduct. Keeping everyone silent was supposed to permit homosexuals to serve in the military. It also was supposed to reduce anti-gay harassment, which historically is a problem in the military.

Six years later, people on both sides of the issue agreed that the policy had failed. In December 1999, President Clinton said the policy was "out of whack" and not working as it was supposed to work. In March 2000, the Pentagon revealed a survey of 71,500 service personnel worldwide. Eighty percent of those surveyed said they heard anti-gay comments in the military during the previous year. Thirty-seven percent said they saw anti-gay harassment. Eighty-five percent said they believed the military tolerated verbal abuse of homosexuals.

Failure of the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy led Vice President Al Gore to call for its repeal. Gore vowed to end discrimination against homosexuals in the military if he was elected president in November 2000.

Justice Souter noted that Goldsmith had not yet been dropped from the rolls. If that happened, Goldsmith would be allowed to challenge the decision before the Air Force Board of Correction for Military Records. If the Board ruled against him, Goldsmith could appeal the case to a federal court. What Goldsmith could not do was get relief from the CAAF, which had no power to tell President Clinton what to do.

Suggestions for further reading

Connolly, Ceci, and Bradley Graham. "Gore Vows New Policy on Gays in Military." Washington Post, December 14, 1999.

Encyclopedia Americana, 1993 ed., s.v. "Court-martial."

Sherrill, Robert. Military Justice is to Justice as Military Music is to Music. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.

Suro, Roberto. "Harassment of Gay GIs Tolerated, Study Finds." Washington Post, March 25, 2000.

World Book Encyclopedia, 2000 ed., s.v. "Court-martial."

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Clinton v. Goldsmith 1999

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