We all remember back in 2015 when Kim Davis, and Kentucky county clerk, refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples following the Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges decision that legalized same-sex marriage, citing her religious beliefs. She was sued by gay and straight couples but still refused to issue the licenses and spent a few days in jail. She was released after the clerk’s office issued the marriage licenses without Davis’ name on them, and the Kentucky legislature eventually passed a law removing the names of all county clerks from state marriage licenses. For a while Davis was a media darling of the Right. But she lost her bid for reelection in 2018 and rightly faded from view.
But Davis is back in the news. A federal judge ruled on Friday that Davis violated two same-sex couples' constitutional rights when she refused to marry them back in 2015.
U.S. District Judge David Bunning in Ashland issued the ruling Friday in two longstanding lawsuits involving Kim Davis, the former clerk of Rowan County, and two same-sex couples who sued her. With the decision, a jury trial will still need to take place to decide on any damages the couples could be owed.
Bunning reasoned that Davis “cannot use her own constitutional rights as a shield to violate the constitutional rights of others while performing her duties as an elected official.”
Amen to that. At the time, many of us were saying that if she didn’t want to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, she shouldn’t hold that elected office. Bunning’s ruling was unequivocal.
“It is readily apparent that Obergefell recognizes Plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment right to marry,” the judge wrote, referencing the landmark same-sex marriage Obergefell decision. “It is also readily apparent that Davis made a conscious decision to violate Plaintiffs’ right.”
One reason it took so long for this case to wind its way to resolution is that Davis had the backing of a powerful conservative legal group. The same district court had previously dismissed the plaintiffs' claims against Davis in her official capacity as county clerk, but allowed the claims against Davis in an individual capacity to proceed. Davis then argued that a legal doctrine called qualified immunity protected her from being sued for damages. This issue went all the way up to the US Supreme Court, which declined to take the case and thus allowed the lawsuit to move forward.
The only issue left to address in this case is for a jury to decide how much the plaintiffs will get in compensatory damages and whether or not they should be awarded any punitive damages.
A big congrats to the plaintiffs — couples David Ermold and David Moore, and James Yates and William Smith. I applaud them for their willingness to take on this issue, which will make a difference in the lives of many LGBTQ+ people for years to come. And may this be the last time we hear about Kim Davis again.
Bunning was also the judge who jailed Davis back in 2015 and ordered her clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples or face jail time themselves, giving Bunning the distinction of being the first U.S. judge to issue a jail sentence to enforce the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision. As the Washington Post noted at the time, Bunning was an unlikely person to be in a prominent role of upholding same-sex marriage. Bunning is a Republican judge appointed by Republican President George W. Bush and comes from a powerful conservative Republican family in Kentucky. His father is former Republican US Senator Jim Bunning (ht to DHfromKY). In his 2015 ruling against Davis, Bunning was as unequivocal as he was in his latest ruling:
“Personal opinions, including my own, are not relevant to today,” Bunning, a federal district judge, told Davis and the courtroom Thursday. “The idea of natural law superseding this court’s authority would be a dangerous precedent indeed.”