« Benforado on cameras and perspective | Main | But the Poor ARE Politically Powerful ... »

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A first take on recalcitrant county clerks

Judge Bunning of the Eastern District of Kentucky preliminarily enjoined the county clerk of Rowan County from enforcing a policy of declining to issue all marriage licenses so as to avoid having to issue licenses to same-sex couples. This is the first detailed challenge to a county clerk refusing to abide by Obergefell and state orders to comply with Obergefell.

Update: The office turned away a same-sex couple (although not the plaintiffs) this morning (H/T: Josh).

Thoughts after the jump.

1) The policy involved here was especially broad. The clerk did not argue that she should not personally have to issue licenses but that another staffer in the office would. Rather, she objected to licenses being issued in her  name as the county clerk, insisting that doing so both compelled her to speak and cause her to endorse and enable conduct that violates her religious beliefs.

2) The case was less about Obergefell than about the general fundamental right to marry (which, under Obergefell, applies equally to same- and opposite-sex couples). The right was substantially burdened for all couples either having to go to a neighboring county to receive a license or get the license from the county judge (who is authorized to issue licenses if the clerk is unable to do so). Interestingly, unlike the Fifth Circuit in the clinic-regulation cases, the court recognized that requiring people to travel (perhaps as long as an hour) to another county could burden those who like the financial, physical, or practical means to travel and thus should not be considered a less-burdensome alternative.

3) The court held that Kentucky county clerks act as state, rather than county, officials in making office policies with respect to issuing marriage licenses. This does not affect an action for injunctive relief. But it does affect the potential for plaintiffs to pursue damages against recalcitrant officials and offices, which is another tool for ensuring compliance with Supreme Court precedent. Damages are not available against state (as opposed to local) entities, so the clerk's office cannot be sued for damages,* although the clerk herself could be sued both for her own refusal to issue licenses, as well as for her role in supervising or ordering her employees not to issue licenses. But being able to sue the office means the plaintiffs would not have to deal with qualified immunity, which is not available to municipalities. The clerk herself can raise qualified immunity, which means damages are not going to be available, at least until a significant body of law builds up.

[*] The court here attributed it to the Eleventh Amendment, a common and unfortunate mistake. Section 1983 (the source of a constitutional damages action) is § 5 legislation that, at least in constitutional cases, is congruent and proportionate to the rights protected by § 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment. The problem is that the Court held that Congress did not abrogate sovereign immunity because "persons" in § 1983 does not include sovereigns. But, as the doctrine developed, Congress could have done so. Thus, the unavailability of damages against the state on constitutional claims is a product of statutory interpretation, not the Constitution.

Update: Note the nuance with respect to the couple denied the license this morning. The clerk is not in contempt because the injunction only protects the five named couples and only obligates her to issue licenses to those five couples. This new couple has to go back to Judge Bunning (either in a new lawsuit or by intervening) and have the injunction extended. Then someone can hold the clerk in contempt--which, frankly, is exactly what she is hoping will happen.

Further Update: This story reports that one of the plaintiff couples (including the named plaintiff) also tried to get licenses on Thursday and were denied. And now the clerk can be held in contempt.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 13, 2015 at 09:36 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

Comments

So what does the right to marry actually contain, aside from the right to get a piece of paper from the government?

It is a pretty unusual right, the right to marry. I have the right to free speech or to own property, but they government just needs to leave me alone, they do not have to give me a certificate to recognize the fact that I have chosen to speak or own property.

Posted by: Jr | Aug 15, 2015 3:31:32 PM

She becomes a martyr to the cause.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Aug 14, 2015 1:18:12 PM

With respect the last line, how does it help her to be held in contempt?

Posted by: Charles | Aug 14, 2015 1:14:43 PM

Post a comment