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The U.S. Army had no valid reason for denying a doctor’s application for discharge as a conscientious objector, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said Dr. Timothy Watson had presented legitimate, credible reasons for seeking conscientious objector status. Since the Army decision had no basis in fact, the court concluded that it would be futile to remand the case to the board that denied his application for reconsideration. Therefore, it affirmed a writ of habeas corpus granted to Dr. Watson, clearing the way for his discharge from the military. The appeal in Watson v. Geren, 07-2563-pr was decided by Judges Joseph M. McLaughlin, Guido Calabresi and Robert A. Katzmann. Judge Katzmann wrote for the court. The Second Circuit decision will be published Monday. In 1998, while attending medical school at George Washington University, Dr. Watson applied for a scholarship from the Army, which offered to pay for the remaining three years of medical school in exchange for his agreement to serve three years of active duty after completing his schooling. After graduation, the Army deferred Dr. Watson’s obligation until he completed a one-year internship and a four-year civilian residency program in radiology. But Dr. Watson claimed that he came to believe that war is immoral while finishing his residency and on the verge of joining the Army. He applied for discharge on Jan. 3, 2006, saying in response to a question, “As a physician now morally opposed to killing and war, my separation from the U.S. Army is essential to my ability to live life and face death with a clear conscience.” In response to a second question, he spoke about how the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 and “our subsequent response in Afghanistan and Iraq have been profound catalysts for introspection, and constitute a radical turning point in my life.” Dr. Watson referenced Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, quoted from the Christian Bible, the Qur’an, and the Rig Veda, and discussed Hinduism, Buddha, Confucious and Lao-Tse. He said he had participated in a march against the Iraq war and volunteered to fulfill his active duty providing medical care to underserved populations through one of several government agencies. Dr. Watson also submitted 10 letters from family members and colleagues attesting to his sincerity. Although an Army colonel who investigated his application recommended that it be granted, all four officers in Dr. Watson’s chain of command rejected his request. The officers gave several reasons for disapproval, including that Dr. Watson had applied in the last year of his residency, that his moral rationale was vague and insincere, and that his real objection was to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the foreign policy of the United States in general, not to all wars. Dr. Watson appealed to the Army’s Conscientious Objector Board, which denied his application, by a 2-1 vote, in a one-page opinion that was short on specifics, the circuit said. On Jan. 17, 2007, the Army ordered Dr. Watson to report for duty at an Army hospital at Fort Steward in Georgia. Dr. Watson then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Eastern District Judge Nina Gershon granted the petition on April 10. The Army did not challenge the determination that its board had not provided an adequate statement of reasons for turning down Dr. Watson. But it argued that the district court erred by failing to remand the case. In its brief to the Second Circuit, the Army criticized Dr. Watson’s “grab-bag of references to various political and religious figures,” his “expedient” beliefs that were “not sincerely held,” his opposition to specific U.S. policy and the delay between the time he came to believe he was a conscientious objector in the early summer of 2005 and his application in 2006. Doctor’s ‘Epiphany’ Judge Katzmann acknowledged that, normally, where an agency gives “an insufficient explanation for its decision,” a remand is called for. But where there is “no basis in fact” to support the decision and remand is “plainly futile,” the court may keep the case. Applying that standard to the facts, Judge Katzmann said the timing of the application was not suspicious because Dr. Watson was in the last year of his residency when his views crystallized and “the timing of an application alone is never a sufficient ground for disapproval of an application.” Judge Katzmann said Dr. Watson’s application and the supporting letters showed that 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, had a deep impact on the doctor and “caused him to reconsider his views on life, God, and religion, and come to conscientious objection.” The judge said marching against the Iraq war was “obviously not inconsistent with opposing all war,” and he credited the opinion of the officer who recommended discharge that Dr. Watson had an “epiphany.” Judge Katzmann said “any fair reading of the application” does not support the Army’s view that Dr. Watson used a “kitchen sink’ approach to quoting religious and political sources for his change of view. The court rejected the remainder of the Army’s arguments, including that Dr. Watson’s application was well-counseled and well written, which Judge Katzmann said was “not an objective basis for disbelieving his sincerity.” Raymond J. Toney represented Dr. Watson. Joshua Waldman of the Department of Justice’s Civil Division argued for the government. @

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