BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Amid conflicting signals from federal courts and the chief justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court, some Alabama counties began granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples on Monday in a legal showdown with echoes of the battles over desegregation in the 1960s.
In major county seats like Birmingham, Montgomery and Huntsville, gay couples lined up outside courthouses as they opened, and emerged smiling, licenses in hand, after being wed by clerks or by the judges themselves.
At the Jefferson County Courthouse here, Judge Michael G. Graffeo of Circuit Court officiated, at times tearfully, at the civil wedding of Dinah McCaryer and Olanda Smith, the first to emerge from the crowd of same-sex couples who lined up Monday morning. “I now pronounce Olanda and Dinah are married spouses, entitled to all rights and privileges, as well as all responsibilities, afforded and placed upon them by the State of Alabama,” Judge Graffeo said.
But in the small town of Troy, all was quiet at the Pike County Courthouse, where Judge Wes Allen of Probate Court, like his counterparts in some other counties, had decided that rather than issue licenses to same-sex couples, he would not grant marriage licenses to anyone. “We don’t have any appointments, and we have a sign up saying that we aren’t issuing any licenses at this time,” he said.
On Sunday night, the state’s chief justice, Roy S. Moore, sent an order to county Probate Court judges, telling them not to issue the licenses, in defiance of a Federal District Court ruling that is being appealed by the state. But on Monday morning, the United States Supreme Court refused to stay the District Court order pending the outcome of that appeal.
Chief Justice Moore’s position on the balance of federal and state power has deep resonance in a region with a history of claiming states’ rights in opposition to the federal government, and in a state where a governor, George Wallace, stood in a doorway of the University of Alabama in 1963 in an unsuccessful bid to block its federally ordered integration.
In his order to probate judges, Justice Moore cited the state constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage, approved by 81 percent of voters in 2006, and said that he, as chief administrator of the state courts, has authority over the probate courts. In interviews, he has argued that the state courts are not bound by the federal court’s order; in 2003, he refused to obey a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument he had installed in the rotunda of the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery, though it was moved over his objections.
Although much has changed from Wallace’s era, Chief Justice Moore had used a series of strongly worded letters and memorandums to insist that in the same-sex marriage case, the federal judge, Callie V. Granade, an appointee of President George W. Bush, had instigated a grave breach of law. The result has been a legal and cultural debate rife with overtones of history, closely held religious beliefs and a chronically bubbling mistrust of the federal government, playing out at Alabama’s courthouses.
As the weddings went ahead across much of the state, some Alabama officials lamented the Supreme Court decision, which denied a request by the Alabama attorney general to extend a hold on same-sex marriage. Judge Granade ruled in January that the Alabama ban was unconstitutional, but she put a hold on her order until Monday to give the state time to appeal.
”I regret the Supreme Court’s decision not to stay the Federal District Court’s ruling until the high court finally settles the issue this summer,” Attorney General Luther Strange, who had filed the motion, said in a statement. “In the absence of a stay, there will likely be more confusion in the coming months leading up to the Supreme Court’s anticipated ruling on the legality of same-sex marriage.”
Here in Jefferson County, Judge Alan L. King of Probate Court said he had no hesitation, despite the Sunday night order on marriage licenses from Chief Justice Moore.
”At the end of the day, it’s still a very simple legal analysis: You’ve got a federal court order,” Judge King said in an interview as he watched the couples line up, near a white ribbon and red balloons.
He added: “This is a happy day for all of these couples, and if you can’t be happy for people, then I’m sorry. If someone can’t understand the joy and happiness of others, then I don’t know what else I can say.”
Monday’s marriages came despite a dramatic show of defiance toward the federal judiciary, announced in Chief Justice Moore’s order.
“Effective immediately, no probate judge of the State of Alabama nor any agent or employee of any Alabama probate judge shall issue or recognize a marriage license that is inconsistent” with the Alabama Constitution or state law, Chief Justice Moore wrote in his order late Sunday.
Chief Justice Moore rose to national prominence in the early 2000s when he defied a federal judge’s order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from a Montgomery building and was subsequently ousted from his post leading the high court.He staged a political comeback, became chief justice again in 2013, and has in recent weeks said that Alabama’s probate judges are not bound by a federal trial court’s decisions. His argument has deep resonance in a place where a governor, George Wallace, stood in a doorway of the University of Alabama in 1963 in an unsuccessful bid to block its federally ordered integration.
Although much has changed from Wallace’s era, Chief Justice Moore had used a series of strongly worded letters and memorandums to insist that Judge Granade, an appointee of President George W. Bush who joined the federal bench in 2002, had instigated a grave breach of law.
The result had been a legal and cultural debate rife with overtones of history, closely held religious beliefs and a chronically bubbling mistrust of the federal government that was expected to play out at Alabama’s courthouses Monday.
The chief justice’s misgivings speak to widespread concerns here about federal overreach and same-sex marriage in Alabama, where about 81 percent of voters in 2006 supported a constitutional amendment banning gay nuptials. Few here doubt the force of Chief Justice Moore’s belief that Judge Granade’s orders hold only “persuasive authority,” and not binding power, on Alabama judges.
“My guess is, that is actually the way Roy Moore sincerely understands the federal-state relationship,” said Joseph Smith, a judicial politics expert at the University of Alabama. “He’s also an elected politician, and he knows who his constituency is.”
Despite Chief Justice Moore’s protests, some analysts see parallels between his arguments now and those Wallace advanced in his own time.
“It’s a very similar strain of ideology: the state’s rights, resisting the national tide, resisting liberal movements in policy,” Dr. Smith said.
Some legal scholars say that the chief justice may be correct in his interpretation of the immediate scope of the federal court’s rulings and how they apply to the probate judges. But his eagerness in pronouncing his views unnerved some in Alabama who feared that it might stir local judges to resist Judge Granade.
“I don’t want to see judges make the same mistakes that I think were made in this state 50 years ago, where you have state officials not abiding by federal orders,” said Judge Steven L. Reed of Montgomery County, who added, “The legacy always hangs over us until we show that we’re beyond it.”
For many here, it is unsurprising that Chief Justice Moore emerged as a strident voice in a social debate after the dispute about the Ten Commandments display, known as “Roy’s Rock,” forced him from power.
“Unfortunately, sometimes it makes for very good politics here to be seen as opposing federal intervention, whether it’s from a court or a federal agency,” said David G. Kennedy, who represents two women involved in a case that prompted Judge Granade’s decision. “The situation here is that this is not federal intervention. It’s not federal intervention at all. What it is, is a federal court declaring what same-sex couples’ rights are under the federal Constitution.”
Source: NY Times, “Same-Sex Marriages Proceed in Alabama as State Judge’s Order Is Defied,” FEB. 9, 2015 (reporting from New York.)