People For the American Way Foundation

Alabama Supreme Court Orders Probate Judge to Violate Federal Court Decision

Late yesterday saw the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of resistance to marriage equality in Alabama, and it is another ugly one.

Earlier this month, the Alabama Supreme Court (with Chief Justice Roy Moore recused) chose to act on a petition from two far right anti-gay organizations and ruled that the state's marriage ban is constitutional. (In other words, they ruled that gay and lesbian couples do not have a constitutional right to marry in a proceeding where none of the parties was a same-sex couple. How's that for fair?) They ruled that federal district Judge Callie Granade's January decision saying otherwise does not bind anyone but the parties in that case, and they directed every probate judge in the state but one to stop giving marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The one exception was Probate Judge Don Davis: Since he had been specifically ordered by the federal court to grant a marriage license to the plaintiffs in Strawser v. Strange and Davis, the justices ordered him to say whether he felt that federal court order required him to grant licenses to any other same-sex couples, or only to the parties in that particular case.

Yesterday, the justices (again with Moore recused) concluded that the federal court order didn't apply to any other couples, and they directed Davis to enforce the marriage ban that had been struck down as unconstitutional earlier this year.

It isn't quite clear why the Alabama Supreme Court, rather than Judge Granade, is qualified to say what Judge Grande's order means.

Even putting that aside, the logic of the state justices' legal conclusion is hard to fathom. A federal court ruled that the ban was unconstitutional – period. It did not rule that the ban was unconstitutional only when applied to the particular couples in that lawsuit. When Judge Granade ordered Davis to issue marriage licenses to the plaintiffs who had asked the court for this relief, she clearly intended for Davis to act consistently with the Constitution for any other same-sex couples seeking to marry. For Davis to comply with the Alabama Supreme Court's order, he would have to defy the federal court.

The contempt for the rule of law seen in this order is nothing new to the Alabama high court. After all, Chief Justice Moore himself was removed from the court more than a decade ago for defying a federal district court order. His efforts to nullify the federal marriage equality ruling prompted PFAW Foundation to submit a formal complaint to state ethics officials calling for him to be removed a second time. It is disheartening to see that most of his colleagues on the state high court share his contempt for the rule of law, to say nothing of the rights of lesbian and gay Alabamans.