We often hear about civil rights stories when they are happening. When they are out of the news cycle we move onto the next big thing and forget what happened. We often assume that someone who violated people’s civil rights might get on with their lives without repercussion.
We all remember Kim Davis, the County Clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky. In August of 2015 Mrs. Davis refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples following the landmark Supreme Court case Obergfell v. Hodges.[i] Obergfell was the case that held that state laws banning same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. Following this decision, states were required to issue marriage licenses to couples regardless of sex, and recognize the validity of same-sex marriage.
Mrs. Davis’s recalcitrance resulted in a suit against her, Miller v Davis[ii] for an injunction preventing her from refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.[iii] Mrs. Davis did not follow the court’s order and refused to issue the licenses. Davis appealed to the 6th Circuit, which denied her appeal and then to the Supreme Court which refused to hear the appeal. On September 3, 2015 she was held in contempt of court and ordered held in jail until she agreed to comply with the Court’s Order.[iv] She was released from jail on September 8, 2015 when she agreed to allow her deputy clerks to issue licenses.
Following the election of a new Governor, the State removed the clerk’s names from the marriage licenses, thus making the lawsuit moot. Mrs. Davis had earlier argued that her name being on the license implied her approval of the same-sex marriage. On February 9, 2016, the court dismissed the plaintiff’s motion.
That wasn’t the end of the case. The plaintiffs then made a motion seeking attorney’s fees and costs. On July 21, 2017 plaintiffs were awarded over $425,000 in costs and attorney’s fees against Mrs. Davis in her capacity as County Clerk. In practical terms, the State of Kentucky had to pay that award. Mrs. Davis lost her bid for reelection in January 2019.
In August of 2017, Matthew Bevin the Governor of Kentucky made a motion for the court to amend its order and make Mrs. Davis personally responsible for the attorney's fees and costs. During the controversy, Bevin, who was then a gubernatorial candidate, praised Davis’s “willingness to stand for her First Amendment rights"[v] Now that he, as Governor, had to pay for her actions, he wasn’t quite so enthusiastic about her actions. “Citing ‘conduct that violates civil rights law’”[vi], Bevins claims that the State shouldn’t bear the burden for her illegal actions.
September 2017 the Court denied his motion and he has appealed to the 6th Circuit. Arguments were made before a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit on January 31, 2019 and we are awaiting a decision.[vii]
As you can see, a lot more goes on in one of these cases than you might think. Most people probably figured that Kim Davis spent a few nights in jail and that was all. In fact, her actions cost the State a lot of money for their own lawyers as well as costs and fees for the plaintiffs, and now Mrs. Davis may find herself personally responsible for a large portion of those expenses.
[ii] Miller v Davis, Eastern District of Kentucky, 0:15-cv-00044-DLB.
[iv] “So that will be the order of the Court. So you'll be remanded to the custody of the marshal, pending your compliance with the Court's order.” Judge David L.Benning, 9/3/15
[vii] Yates v. Davis, 6th Circuit, 17-6120, 17-6226.
The author[s] is solely responsible for this blog submission. It does not represent the position of the New York State Bar Association or its Committee.