U.S. District Judge Carlton W. Reeves announced on June 27 that he will order Mississippi officials not to enforce part of H.B. 1523, a recently-enacted state law scheduled to go into effect on July 1, because it would circumvent the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling requiring states to afford equal marriage rights to same-sex couples. The challenged provision, Section 3(8)(a), allows Circuit Court Clerks to “recuse” themselves from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples if they have a sincere religious belief opposed to same-sex marriage. The provision says that same-sex couples will be entitled to get marriage licenses, but provides no mechanism to make sure that they can get them in case there is nobody in a particular clerk’s office who has not recused himself or herself. The Order is published as Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83036 (S.D. Miss., June 27, 2016).
Recalling a 1962 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, Meredith v. Fair, 305 F.2d 343, which “chastised our State for ‘a carefully calculated campaign of delay and masterly inactivity” in response to federal desegregation orders, Judge Reeves announced that he would “reopen” the Mississippi marriage equality case “for the parties to confer about how to provide clerks with actual notice of the Permanent injunction” and for the parties “to confer on appropriate language to include in an Amended Permanent Injunction.”
Robbie Kaplan, a New York attorney who represents the Campaign for Southern Equality, the plaintiff in the Mississippi case, had filed a motion seeking to reopen the case in order to ensure that same-sex couples in the state are not subjected to unconstitutional discrimination because of H.B. 1523. A large team of pro-bono attorneys from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, a New York firm where Kaplan is a partner, is working on the case together with attorneys from several southern states including local counsel from Mississippi.
Reeves is also considering two other lawsuits involving challenges and defenses to the constitutionality of other provisions of H.B. 1523, which was explicitly enacted in response to the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision and which shelters public employees and private businesses from any liability or adverse consequences if they refuse to deal with same-sex couples based on their religious beliefs. The law also allows government offices and businesses to deny transgender people appropriate access to restrooms and other gender-designated facilities, once again based on a “sincere religious belief” that a person’s gender is immutably determined at birth. Reeves is expected to issue rulings in those cases shortly.
Judge Reeves, an African-American man who was appointed to the district court by President Barack Obama, presided over the Mississippi marriage equality case, Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant, issuing a ruling in November 2014 that the state’s constitutional and statutory bans on same-sex marriage violate the 14th Amendment. He issued a preliminary injunction to that effect on November 25, which was stayed while the state appealed to the 5th Circuit, which, after hearing oral argument in this and cases from other states in the circuit in January 2015, put a hold on the appeal until the Supreme Court decided the Obergefell case.
The Obergefell decision, announced on June 26, 2015, said that same-sex couples were entitled to enter into civil marriages “on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.” “This resolved the issue nationwide,” wrote Reeves, who subsequently issued a Permanent Injunction in response to an order from the 5th Circuit (see 791 F.3d 625) directing him to “act expeditiously on remand and enter final judgment.” Reeves’ Permanent Injunction ordered that the state “and all its agents, officers, employees, and subsidiaries, and the Circuit Clerk of Hinds County and all her agents, officers, and employees, are permanently enjoined from enforcing Section 263A of the Mississippi Constitution and Mississippi Code Section 93-1-1(2).”
Shortly after Reeves issued his injunction, the Mississippi Attorney General’s office advised all 82 Circuit Court clerks to grant marriage licenses “to same-sex couples on the same terms and conditions accorded to couples of the opposite sex.” But in response to this motion, the State argued that the only Circuit Court Clerk bound by the court’s injunction was the Hinds County Clerk, who was named in that Order, because the clerks are county employees rather than state employees.
When the Mississippi legislature convened for its 2016 session, it promptly passed H.B. 1523, which was clearly intended to send a message that the state would happily tolerate and protect discrimination against same-sex couples and LGBT individuals by privileging those with anti-gay religious beliefs. This was largely symbolic when it came to discrimination by private businesses and landlords, since Mississippi law does not forbid discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations, and it was only after H.B. 1523 was enacted that the city of Jackson became the first jurisdiction in the state to legislate against such discrimination. Thus, at the time H.B. 1523 was passed, this “privilege” was not necessary to “protect” free exercise of anti-gay religious views by Mississippians.
The provisions about bathroom use and marriage licenses threatened to have more significant practical effect, setting up a clash with federal constitutional and statutory requirements. Over the past few months, issue has been joined in several lawsuits in other federal districts contesting whether federal sex discrimination laws override state laws and require employers not to discriminate against LGBT people or deny bathroom access to transgender employees and students. As Judge Reeves pointed out in his June 27 Order, states “lack authority to nullify a federal right or cause of action they believe is inconsistent with their local policies.” In this case, the marriage license provision clearly violates federal constitutional requirements established in the Obergefell decision.
“In H.B. 1523,” wrote Reeves, “the State is permitting the differential treatment to be carried out by individual clerks. A statewide policy has been ‘pushed down’ to an individual-level policy. But the alleged constitutional infirmity is the same. The question remains whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires marriage licenses to be granted (and out-of-state marriage licenses to be recognized) to same-sex couples on identical terms as they are to opposite-sex couples.” And the precise question before Reeves was whether it was necessary to modify his 2015 injunction to make it clear that all government employees involved in the marriage process, including the State Registrar and the Circuit Court Clerks, are bound by his injunction.
Reeves concluded that the Registrar was clearly bound, but that it would be preferable to make it more explicit that the Circuit Court Clerks are bound as well, since a violation of the injunction would subject them to potential liability, including the costs of defending lawsuits against them and possible contempt penalties if they refused to obey the court’s Order.
Much of his June 27 Order was devoted to technical procedural and jurisdictional issues, which he resolved in every instance against the state defendants, from Governor Phil Bryant on down.
He also agreed with the plaintiffs that they should be able to conduct discovery against the State Registrar in order to learn which Clerks had filed forms seeking to recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses. The Registrar, who is supposed to receive those forms under H.B. 1523, had been claiming that since she was not a party to the marriage lawsuit, she was not bound by the court’s injunction and thus not subject to a discovery demand in this case. Reeves asserted that “there are good reasons to permit discovery from the Registrar strictly for purposes of enforcing the Permanent Injunction. In 2016, Mississippi responded to Obergefell by creating a new way to treat same-sex couples differently than opposite-sex couples. That the differential treatment is now pushed down to county employees should be irrelevant for discovery purposes. The State will have the documents that show exactly where and by whom the differential treatment it authorized in HB 1523 will now occur. The Plaintiffs should be able to receive that post-judgment discovery from an appropriate State employee, like the Registrar.”
Reeves rejected the technical argument that the State, as such, was not a party to the lawsuit. For technical reasons of constitutional law, the State as an entity can’t be sued in federal court by its citizens without its consent, so state officials rather than the State itself are designated as defendants in cases like the marriage equality lawsuit. But this is really a technicality. The Attorney General defended the marriage ban using state funds and employees and, Reeves pointed out, it is well established that a federal court “may enjoin the implementation of an official state policy” because the state is “the real party in interest” even though the lawsuit was brought against named state officials.
Reeves signaled that the amended form of the Injunction will add language from the Obergefell decision to make clear that same-sex couples are entitled to the same treatment as different-sex couples because, as the 5th Circuit said last July, Obergefell “is the law of the land and, consequently, the law of this circuit.”
“Mississippi’s elected officials may disagree with Obergefell, of course, and may express that disagreement as they see fit – by advocating for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision, for example,” wrote Reeves. “But the marriage license issue will not be adjudicated anew after every legislative session. And the judiciary will remain vigilant whenever a named party to an injunction is accused of circumventing that injunction, directly or indirectly.”