A federal appeals court has ruled that the state of Kentucky, not Kim Davis or her county, is responsible for the costs associated with Davis’s legal battle over her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — but she’s not entirely off the hook yet, as she’s being sued in a separate case.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled Friday that the state is liable for nearly $225,000 in attorney fees and court costs run up by couples who sued when Davis in 2015 shut down all marriage license operations in Rowan County rather than serve same-sex couples after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling, The Courier-Journal of Louisville reports. Four couples, a mix of same-sex and opposite-sex pairs, brought the suit against Davis, who was county clerk at the time. She cited her religious beliefs as a reason for not obeying the marriage equality ruling.
A federal district court ruled in 2017 that since the couples won their suit, the state must pay their legal bills. This January, lawyers for the state argued in the appeal that the couples did not necessarily prevail and that even if they did, Davis herself was responsible for the costs.
Davis went to jail for five days in 2015 for contempt of court, as she had refused to comply with a judge’s order to resume issuing marriage licenses. She was released after her deputies started issuing licenses to all couples without discrimination, and she eventually won an accommodation from the state, which took county clerks’ names off the licenses.
Palmer G. Vance II, a lawyer for Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, had contended in a brief that Davis “defied the unequivocal mandate issued by the Supreme Court” and the state’s “interest in upholding the rule of law. … As a result, the Commonwealth cannot bear liability for any attorneys’ fees related to challenges to the legality of this local policy.
The state made this argument even though Bevin, a Republican, has often praised Davis and agreed to the accommodation she sought. His predecessor, Democrat Steve Beshear, had directed Davis to comply with the marriage equality ruling and declined to make an accommodation for her religious beliefs.
Although Friday’s ruling could be appealed further — to the full appeals court or the Supreme Court — an aide to Bevin issued a statement saying, “We respect the court’s decision.”
The American Civil Liberties Union’s Kentucky affiliate, which represented the couples, praised the ruling. “By affirming the sizeable fee award, the Court also sent a strong message to other government officials in Kentucky that it is not only unconstitutional to use public office to impose one’s personal religious views on others, but that it also can be a very expensive mistake,” said a statement released by William E. Sharp, an attorney for the ACLU of Kentucky.
Ruling in a separate suit brought by two other couples, the Sixth Circuit said Davis has sovereign immunity as a public official but not qualified immunity as an individual. This means that she can be sued. She was violating a “clearly established” right of the couples who sued, Judge Richard Griffin wrote for a three-judge panel.
This suit is in its early stages and the trial court hasn’t heard arguments yet; the appeals court’s ruling dealt only with whether the case can proceed.
“Kim risked everything she had rather than violate her conscience,” the appeal reads. “She refused to endorse what God prohibits by issuing marriage licenses with her signature to same-sex couples.” She is being targeted by “radical LGBT activists and their allies” who “want revenge.”
Davis, who changed her party affiliation from Democratic to Republican in 2015, lost her bid for reelection last year to Democrat Elwood Caudill Jr.