The state of Kentucky must pay nearly $225,000 in legal fees and court costs incurred by couples who sued then-Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis in 2015 because she refused to issue marriage licenses due to her religious opposition to same-sex marriage, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld a federal district judge who earlier ordered the state to pick up the tab. It ruled that the couples were the prevailing parties in their lawsuit against Davis and that Kentucky’s state government regulates the administration of marriage licenses and therefore was responsible for her conduct.
“They prevailed against her in her capacity as a state official, not a county one,” U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Allen Griffin wrote for a three-judge panel. “Because Davis acted on Kentucky’s behalf when issuing and refusing to issue marriage licenses, the district court correctly imposed liability for the award on the commonwealth.”
Although Republican Gov. Matt Bevin has sided with Davis publicly, his lawyers in court unsuccessfully asked the 6th Circuit to hold the state blameless, noting that Davis acted on her own as a locally elected official.
“Her local policy stood in direct conflict with her statutory obligation to issue marriage licenses to qualified Kentucky couples. The local policy also undermined the Commonwealth of Kentucky’s interest in upholding the rule of law,” Bevin attorney Palmer G. Vance II wrote in one brief.
At issue are the litigation expenses for eight people who sued Davis for refusing to grant them marriage licenses: April Miller, Karen Ann Roberts, Shantel Burke, Stephen Napier, Jody Fernandez, Kevin Holloway, L. Aaron Skaggs and Barry W. Spartman.
After the Supreme Court’s 2015 same-sex marriage decision, Davis announced that she held religious objections to gay marriage and no longer would grant marriage licenses to anyone in Rowan County. Her protest became international news, turning her into a symbol of conservative resistance, especially when U.S. District Judge David Bunning jailed her for several days for contempt of court.
Ultimately, Davis worked out a compromise with Bunning, allowing one of her deputies who had no objections to issue a modified marriage license to anyone who wanted it. Later, the state legislature removed county clerks’ names from Kentucky marriage licenses.
Davis lost her re-election bid as clerk last November.
The couples celebrated their win Friday, their attorneys said.
“The Court of Appeals correctly found that April Miller and the other ACLU clients prevailed by forcing the former clerk to abandon her unlawful policy of withholding marriage licenses from the public,” said William Sharp, an attorney for the ACLU of Kentucky.
“By affirming the sizable 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,” Sharp said.
Davis’ attorneys at Liberty Counsel noted that the former clerk herself was not held responsible for the court costs and fees in the Miller case.
In a separate appeal involving court costs and legal fees claimed by another couple, David Ermold and David Moore, the 6th Circuit on Friday agreed with the district judge that Davis held sovereign immunity as a public official but not qualified immunity as an individual. Unlike the Miller case, the Ermold case is still in its early stages, and no actual money has been awarded yet.
“Regarding Kim Davis, this case is not over,” said Mat Staver, an attorney with Liberty Counsel.
“Kim Davis sought a religious accommodation, and today every Kentucky clerk benefits from her efforts thanks to Gov. Matt Bevin and the entire General Assembly. I believe Kim Davis will prevail on the individual damages claim,” Staver said.