Tuesday, March 3, 2015
Alabama Supreme Court Orders Probate Judges to Discontinue Issuing Same-Sex Marriage Licenses
In a per curiam opinion in excess of 130 pages, the Alabama Supreme Court has ordered certain probate judges to 'discontinue the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples' in compliance with a district judge's order and a denial of a stay by the United States Supreme Court.
[UPDATED: Reports state that the controversial Chief Justice Roy Moore recused himself from the ruling, but neither Moore nor recusal seems to be mentioned in the opinion]. The Alabama Supreme Court's opinion per curiam opinion states that "Stuart, Bolin, Parker, Murdock, Wise, and Bryan, JJ., concur," and that "Main, J., concurs in part and concurs in the result," and that "Shaw, J., dissents." Chief Justice Moore is the ninth of the nine justices of the Alabama Supreme Court (pictured below).
The case is styled Ex parte State of Alabama ex rel. Alabama Policy Institute, Alabama Citizens Action Program, and John E. Enslen, in his official capacity as Judge of Probate for Elmore County; In re: Alan L. King, in his official capacity as Judge of Probate for Jefferson County, et al., and is an Emergency Petition for Writ of Mandamus. Justice Greg Shaw's dissent highlights the unusual procedural posture of the case: he concludes that the Alabama Supreme Court does not have original jurisdiction, that the public interest groups (Alabama Policy Institute and Alabama Citizens Action Program) cannot sue in Alabama's name and do not have standing, that the petition for writ of mandamus is procedurally deficient given that there is no lower court opinion, and that the court's opinion improperly rules on the constitutionality of the Alabama marriage laws since that issue is not before it. Justice Shaw concludes:
I believe that this case is not properly before this Court. As the main opinion notes, this case is both unusual and of great public interest; however, I do not see a way for this Court to act at this time. By overlooking this Court's normal procedures; by stretching our law and creating exceptions to it; by assuming original jurisdiction, proceeding as a trial court, and reaching out to speak on an issue that this Court cannot meaningfully impact because the Supreme Court of the United States will soon rule on it; and by taking action that will result in additional confusion and more costly federal litigation involving this State's probate judges, this Court, in my view, is venturing into unchartered waters and potentially unsettling established principles of law.
Shaw's dissent provides a window into the Alabama Supreme Court's lengthy opinion. Much of the opinion concerns the odd procedural posture of the case. The opinion does specifically address the relationship between Alabama and the federal judge's decision by declaring that the "Respondents' Ministerial Duty is Not Altered by the United States Constitution":
The United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama has declared that Alabama's laws that define marriage as being only between two members of the opposite sex -- what has been denominated traditional marriage -- violate the United States Constitution. After careful consideration of the reasoning employed by the federal district court in Searcy I, we find that the provisions of Alabama law contemplating the issuance of marriage licenses only to opposite-sex couples do not violate the United States Constitution and that the Constitution does not alter or override the ministerial duties of the respondents under Alabama law.
Thus, because the Alabama Supreme Court disagrees, Alabama is not bound by the federal decision. The Alabama Supreme Court's "per curiam" opinion on the constitutionality of the same-sex marriage ban is scholarly, lengthy, and well-reasoned (and perhaps more persuasive than the Sixth Circuit's opinion in DeBoer v. Snyder, to which the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari, and on which the Alabama Supreme Court relies extensively). But this discussion does little to resolve the basic federalism of whether the state is bound by the federal court's judgment. The court's order does include this specific provision, which may engage the issue most directly:
As to Judge Davis's request to be dismissed on the ground that he is subject to a potentially conflicting federal court order, he is directed to advise this Court, by letter brief, no later than 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 5, 2015, as to whether he is bound by any existing federal court order regarding the issuance of any marriage license other than the four marriage licenses he was ordered to issue in Strawser.