Judge rules inmate can get marriage license without going to clerk’s office

Kathryn Sauer
Kathryn Sauer Kentucky Department of Corrections

A female prison inmate will be able to get married under a judge’s order this week that has implications across Kentucky.

U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove struck down a rule that requires both parties to a marriage to apply for a license in person at a county clerk’s office.

The ruling applies only in Shelby County at this point because that was the clerk’s office involved in the lawsuit. However, other clerks could face similar requests involving inmates or other people unable to travel to a courthouse, such as for an invalid driver’s license.

Clerks from around the state discussed the issue at a meeting Thursday, said Bill May, executive director of the Kentucky County Clerks Association.

The plan is to set up a working group to discuss methods for clerks to comply with the ruling, perhaps through legislation, May said.

The case that led to the ruling involves Bradley Jones of Louisville, a 36-year-old carpenter, and Kathryn Brooke Sauer, 35, who is serving time on first-degree robbery and other charges at the Kentucky Correctional Institute for Women.

Jones and Sauer dated briefly in middle school, then were apart for years before rekindling a romance in 2014 after Jones tracked her down through a mutual friend.

Sauer was in prison by then and is not eligible for parole until June 2026.

However, Jones does not believe he should wait until then to marry her because of his religious convictions, Van Tatenhove said in his ruling.

Jones went to Shelby County Clerk Sue Carole Perry’s office in July seeking a license to marry Sauer. Perry declined to issue the license.

Perry told the Herald-Leader she didn’t object to the marriage, but felt she could not issue the license because of the state policy requiring both people to apply in person.

Van Tatenhove said Perry’s office cited a 2008 memorandum from the state Department for Libraries & Archives that said clerks must have both parties present to sign the application for a marriage license.

In 2009, however, the state Attorney General’s Office said the in-person requirement likely interfered with an inmate’s right to get married, and advised coming up with a procedure to help inmates marry, Van Tatenhove said.

The office warned officials not “to sit on their hands and frustrate an incarcerated person’s right to marry,” but when Jones sought a license seven years later, he was denied, Van Tatenhove said.

Jones’ attorney, Aaron J. Bentley, argued in a federal lawsuit that the policy of requiring Sauer to apply in person effectively barred the marriage, violating Jones’ constitutional rights.

Van Tatenhove agreed, ruling the in-person requirement is an unconstitional barrier to Jones’ fundamental right to marry.

Van Tatenhove said state law does not mention the in-person rule and called it a “contrivance” of government officials.

He ordered Perry to come up with a procedure by Nov. 4 to allow Jones and Sauer to get a marriage license.

Perry could send a deputy clerk to the prison to let Sauer sign the license, for instance, or could authorize an official at the prison to do that, the judge said.

Perry said on Thursday that she would not appeal and will meet with an attorney next week to work on a procedure to comply with the ruling.

Bentley said Jones asked for a copy of the ruling to read over the telephone to Sauer. The two talk regularly on the phone and have weekend visits, Bentley said.

“He was excited, of course,” Bentley said.

Jones is looking for a minister to officiate the wedding, Bentley said.