Gay ex-midshipman says he won't settle for less than officer's commission

December 31, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Former Midshipman Joseph C. Steffan, ousted from the Naval Academy in 1987 for being gay, said yesterday that he is not ready to "settle for anything else" than an officer's commission, despite the Clinton administration's objection to that.

He and his lawyers, Mr. Steffan said in a telephone interview, "are pursuing what I would have been given if I had graduated from the Academy. It is not beneficial for me to go in as an enlisted person; that was not what I planned, and not what I am entitled to."

The Justice Department formally asked a federal appeals court yesterday to cancel a 6-week-old order requiring the Navy to give him a commission as an ensign. It said that no court had the power to order the commissioning of a military officer; it argued that only the president can do that, with the Senate's approval.

The department did not object, however, to a separate part of the order by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here that ordered the Pentagon to let Mr. Steffan serve in the Navy and get his diploma.

The Pentagon said that it would give Mr. Steffan his Academy diploma after the court case is over, provided he can transfer enough credits from North Dakota State University, where he got a degree after being ousted from the Academy just before his graduation and commissioning.

"It's so nice of them," Mr. Steffan remarked sarcastically.

Mr. Steffan, 29, will graduate from the University of Connecticut's law school in Hartford in May.

Mr. Steffan's main attorney, Marc Wolinsky, said it was "the height of arrogance" for the Pentagon to "think they have the right to rummage through his academic record" to decide the diploma issue when it had decided not to appeal the order that his client be given that diploma.

Embodying a compromise between the Justice and Defense departments, a new legal document was submitted notifying the Circuit Court that the administration would not appeal the core of its decision in the Steffan case, striking down as unconstitutional the military's long-standing ban on gays in the service.

While still convinced that the Circuit Court was wrong in nullifying the old policy, the Justice Department said it would make its constitutional stand on homosexuals in uniform when the government's new compromise policy, codified by Congress, challenged in a future lawsuit.

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