« Stern on liberals, sexual violence, and the justice system | Main | The science and linguistics of profanity »

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Permanent injunctions and no mootness in marriage equality litigation

I missed this yesterday, but Judge Granade entered a permanent injunction in Strawser v. Strange. She rejected the state's argument that the case was moot in light of Obergefell, pointing to the suspended Roy Moore and the Supreme Court of Alabama's refusal to vacate its March 2015 Mandamus and that court's continued criticism of Obergefell as demonstrating that the state officials cannot show that enforcement of the marriage ban is certain not to occur. That the court (including whoever is Chief and serving as the administrative supervisor of the state judiciary ) is especially salient in Alabama, where judicial-branch officials are charged with issuing marriage licenses.

Judge Granade's order follows on the heels (and relies on) a similar permanent injunction in Brenner v. Scott in Florida back in March (sorry to have missed it at the time). The court in Brenner was even more dismissive of the state's mootness arguments. The court pointed to the state's refusal to immediately comply with earlier orders, the legislature's failure to repeal or amend the ban on same-sex marriages and other laws affected by that ban, and requests of state officials to "clarify" the scope of the injunction on other issues that turn on recognition of same-sex marriage. For example, the State Surgeon General asked for clarification whether, under Obergefell and the injunction, they must identify a female non-biological parent on a birth certificate, even though the document says "father;" the judge insisted the answer should be easy (same-sex couples must be treated the same as opposite couples in all respects) and the request itself showed that the defendants have not "unambiguously terminated their illegal practices." These courts join the Eighth Circuit in rejecting the argument that officials' agreement to comply with Obergefell, without more, moots unrelated cases involving different parties and different laws.

There is a procedural morass here that makes this a lot more complicated and that I need to think through further.

On the one hand, SCOTUS precedent should not moot an unrelated case, given the general rule that voluntary cessation does not moot and especially given my departmentalist model in which state officials have no constitutional obligation to follow SCOTUS (or any other) precedent outside of a judgment against them as to particular parties. That keeps the controversy alive, since every new request for a license is a new controversy beyond the scope of any existing court order. That state officials are not rushing to apply Obergefell to new settings is a product of Obergefell not extending that far.

On the other hand, the limited scope of most injunctions (including the injunction in Brenner, although not Strawser, given the class certification) should make a permanent injunction inappropriate once the named plaintiffs received their marriage licenses on the strength of the preliminary injunction. The plaintiffs got what they wanted and the defendants gave the plaintiffs what they were entitled to, so there is nothing more for the court order to do as to these parties. Everything else is for further state compliance with respect to people and issues not before the court and, if necessary, further litigation and a new injunction involving those new parties and new issues. For example, Brenner recognized that the birth-certificate issue is "not well presented in this case," since none of the plaintiffs seeks a birth certificate; there are two separate lawsuits by unrelated parties against the Surgeon General for refusal to issue such certificates. And if those statutes are constitutionally invalid (as they assuredly are under Obergefell), then state officials will be enjoined from enforcing those laws as to those plaintiffs. But that should not provide a basis for the type of free-standing injunction against taking any "steps to enforce or apply" Florida's prohibition on same-sex marriage, unconnected to context or party, in a case in which the plaintiffs only sought marriage licenses.

Finally, an interesting side note: I found the Strawser order on the website for Americans United for Separate of Church and States, which is undertaking representation of couples seeking marriage licenses in Alabama (and presumably elsewhere), since the refusals are now grounded in officials' religious objections to performing this function. It is interesting how the constitutional valance of marriage equality, and thus of the advocacy groups involved, has shifted.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 9, 2016 at 09:35 AM in Civil Procedure, Constitutional thoughts, Howard Wasserman, Law and Politics | Permalink

Comments

The comments to this entry are closed.