This week offered quite the spectacle in Alabama. Relying on a recent ruling from United States District Court Judge Callie Granade, based in Mobile, that struck down the provision in the Alabama state constitution that prohibits recognition of same-sex marriage, many gay and lesbian couples around the state began getting marriage licenses. But other same-sex couples, mainly in more conservative counties, have been unable to obtain licenses because some state probate judges (who issue marriage licenses in that state) are continuing to abide by the state-law ban on same-sex marriage, notwithstanding Judge Granade’s ruling that such discrimination violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the federal Constitution. And on Monday Judge Granade herself declined requests to hold probate judges who refused to issue same-sex licenses in contempt of her federal court and its orders. Meanwhile, the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Roy S. Moore, has been issuing statements about the limits of federal power that remind many observers of the days of George Wallace, and maybe even Jefferson Davis. So what is going on here? And do the state court judges who are continuing to enforce Alabama’s discriminatory marriage-license regime have a legal leg to stand on? In the space below, I try to separate the strands of the tangle, and to highlight which legal questions have clear answers and which don’t.
Let us first take the easy question of whether Justice Moore’s broad-based challenge to federal judicial authority holds up. It does not. Justice Moore has said that the federal courts have no authority over the state-law institution of marriage and that federal district judges cannot require state judges to follow federal trial court rulings. These ambitious sentiments are certainly wrong if they are taken to mean that a federal court cannot award meaningful relief to plaintiffs who successfully challenge the application of state law to them. Federal district courts can vindicate the federal rights of federal plaintiffs, even if those rights involve the institution of marriage, and even if it is state judges (as is the case in Alabama’s regime) who issue the marriage licenses that are being wrongfully and unequally withheld. So a federal district court has undeniable power to order state officials, including state judges, to provide victorious federal plaintiffs a remedy to redress their constitutional violations. Such power to adjudicate and vindicate federal rights is emphatically what federal courts are for. That’s Constitutional Law I/Marbury v. Madison-kind of stuff.
The Limits on Federal District Court Remedial Reach
Why, then, did District Court Judge Granade not hold state court judges in contempt for withholding marriage licenses? After all, contempt of court—with its coercive sanctions—is usually what we invoke to ensure that people comply with federal court orders. (I should point out here that individuals who violate federal court orders are generally punishable for contempt even when the federal court orders themselves go too far and are later determined to be illegal.) The answer is that the formal remedy provided by Judge Granade—the technical order she issued after finding the Alabama same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional—did not, as she herself understood it, extend to all probate judges who interact with all same-sex couples throughout the state. While Judge Granade could and should hold in contempt any state official who refuses to recognize the marriage of the particular same-sex couple who brought the case in her court and won, Judge Granade was likely correct not to try to punish probate judges for withholding relief as to other same-sex couples.
The reason for this is that the weight of authority tends to suggest—as a leading casebook puts things—that “a [federal district] court can enjoin [a] defendant only with respect to the defendant’s treatment of plaintiffs actually before the court, either individually or as part of a certified class” (emphasis added). Because there was no class certified in the case before Judge Granade—it was brought by one same-sex couple—Judge Granade’s remedial authority is technically limited to the particular plaintiffs before her. Thus, even if her legal reasoning invalidating Alabama’s same-sex marriage ban is valid—and even if it is likely that her interpretation of the federal Constitution will be upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court later this year—state court judges who continue to enforce the state-law ban as to other couples are likely not defying federal authority in a way that can be punished.
This also means that, as a technical matter, the problem (if one views remedial limitations as a problem, though many would view them as a virtue that makes federal judicial power less scary) won’t necessarily be solved by trying to name every probate judge in Alabama as a party to a case in Judge Granade’s docket. If a federal judge cannot order state judges to provide relief to anyone other than the federal plaintiffs before her, then same-sex couples throughout the state will not all necessarily benefit by extending Judge Granade’s orders to cover additional defendants in additional cases involving additional named couples; the remedial limitation is defined by the identity of the plaintiffs, not the identity of the defendants.
So when Judge Granade yesterday afternoon ruled, in a second case, that one probate judge who had been refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses must begin issuing them, her order was still limited to the particular plaintiffs (four same-sex couples) who were in her court asking for relief. As Judge Granade wrote yesterday: “If Plaintiffs take all steps that are required in the normal course of business as a prerequisite to issuing a marriage license to opposite-sex couples, Judge Davis may not deny them a license on the ground that Plaintiffs constitute same-sex couples or because it is prohibited by the Sanctity of Marriage Amendment and the Alabama Marriage Protection Act or by any other Alabama law or Order pertaining to same-sex marriage” (emphasis added).
Now it may well be that as more and more probate judges are instructed to issue licenses to named plaintiffs in more and more cases, all of the probate judges in the state will start issuing licenses to all same-sex couples who apply, regardless of whether those couples are victorious plaintiffs in any federal case. But that will not be because the state court judges are under a federal court order that obliges them to do so, but because they choose to do so in light of the decisional trend.
I should note that the conventional rule that I describe here—that a federal trial court’s relief should normally be granted only to the actual plaintiffs in the case—does not forbid the court, even outside of a class action setting, from ordering relief that in fact goes beyond protecting the named plaintiffs and also protects other would-be plaintiffs, if full relief cannot be given to the named plaintiffs without also necessarily regulating the defendants’ interactions with other persons. (For example, in one case, a court was justified in ordering the police to stop enforcing a motorcycle helmet law overly aggressively as to all riders—and not just as to the plaintiffs—because highway patrol officers would have no way of distinguishing plaintiffs from non-plaintiffs before pulling someone over.) But in the present setting, full relief (i.e., marriage licenses and recognition) can be given to named plaintiffs without ordering the defendants to give licenses to anyone else.
Some have argued that providing full relief to named same-sex plaintiff couples requires allowing all same-sex couples in the state to marry, because absent such broad access to same-sex marriage, the named plaintiffs’ marriages would continue to be subject to stigma. But I don’t think that this stigma argument works, because if it did, then same-sex couples whose marriages are already recognized would have standing to challenge bans on same-sex marriage that are preventing others from marrying, and I don’t think any federal court would recognize standing in such circumstances.
I should also point out that some federal judges believe that a district court can order government agencies to refrain from enforcing facially invalid laws or policies against anyone, and not just the plaintiffs before it. (Judge Granade’s orders up until this point—limited as they are to the actual plaintiffs before her—give no indication that she is among them.) For example, (now-retired) United States District Court Judge Vaughn Walker (in San Francisco) is reported to have embraced this view when he issued an order whose plain language directed state officials to stop enforcing California’s same-sex marriage ban, Proposition 8, against all same-sex couples, and not just the two couples who sued in his court. Judge Walker’s apparent position—which was never fully tested because both the Governor and Attorney General of California chose not to try to continue enforcing Proposition 8—was in (unexplained) tension with current Ninth Circuit law, which embraces the more dominant view, described above, to the effect that the remedy must ordinarily be tailored to the plaintiffs only. The Ninth Circuit approach is supported by most (but not all) of the statements the Supreme Court has made on the topic, but candor compels the acknowledgement that the law in this area is not really settled and could definitely benefit from high Court attention and clarification.
Does Restricting a Federal District Court’s Reach to the Plaintiffs Before it Make Sense?
Why might it be sensible for a federal district court judge not to be able to issue relief to anyone other than the plaintiffs in the case before it? Because, under the judicial system we have chosen, we have decided that federal district court opinions and decisions should, as a matter of governing precedent, have no binding effect on any other judges, even other federal judges located within the same district. This situation is to be contrasted with a ruling by the regional federal Court of Appeals or the United States Supreme Court. Once either of those courts has held Alabama’s law invalid (and neither has yet—the Supreme Court chose not to block Judge Granade’s ruling, but it won’t decide the merits of the same-sex marriage constitutional question until later this year, at the earliest), then all judges, state and federal, within the state should surely obey that ruling, because the federal appellate court (whether it is the Eleventh Circuit or the Supreme Court) would have fashioned federal law that is supreme and applicable throughout the state. This is true even though state judges’ rulings are not appealable to the Eleventh Circuit, insofar as all federal district judges in the circuit (who are bound by circuit precedent) would have no choice but to give injunctive relief to any same-sex couple who subsequently filed suit. Under those circumstances, it would be an utter waste of time (and perhaps a due process violation) for a state court judge not to give a license to someone who undeniably could get one by filing a federal suit anywhere in the state. Whether contempt sanctions are applicable or not, no judge or other state official would be justified in continuing to enforce a state law that a federal appellate court governing that state has held to be invalid.
But a ruling by a district court judge like Judge Granade has no such effect. Just because she ruled that Alabama’s law violates the federal Constitution does not mean that other federal judges in Alabama would so rule if other same-sex couples filed suit in their courts. Her ruling is not binding precedent on them. Importantly, not all same-sex couples could properly sue in Judge Granade’s district, and even if they did, other district court judges in that district to whom a new case might be assigned might rule differently on Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriage. So Judge Granade’s ruling—unlike one from the Eleventh Circuit or the Supreme Court—does not inevitably provide relief to any would-be federal-plaintiff same-sex couple in the state.
Perhaps an example will help drive home the point I’m making. Imagine that public universities throughout Alabama, pursuant to a state law policy, take race of applicants into account in a measured way in the admissions process, in order to assemble a diverse student body. Suppose a single unsuccessful applicant to a single public college in the state sues in federal court, bringing a facial challenge to the state’s affirmative action policy on the ground that any use of race violates the Fourteenth Amendment. And suppose the district judge in that case rules (wrongly, to my mind, but not implausibly as a prediction of where the Supreme Court is headed) that all consideration of race is indeed barred by the Fourteenth Amendment. Could that judge apply her ruling to all the public universities in the state, and order all of the them (under pain of contempt) to refrain from considering race at all as they process the hundreds of of thousands of applications they receive each year, even though many other federal and state judges in the state would disagree with her interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment but might never have a chance to hear a case if her ruling were allowed to shut down statewide use of the policy? I think such remedial power by a single judge would raise many problems, and for that reason, if and when the Court clarifies district court remedial power, it might embrace what I have described here as the mildly dominant view limiting remedial authority to actual plaintiffs.
But, a reader might wonder, isn’t there a difference between the affirmative-action hypothetical I posit and the same-sex marriage setting insofar as affirmative-action limitations at the high Court are still a matter of debate, while there is no longer any real doubt about whether the Supreme Court this summer will hold that all state-law discrimination against same-sex couples in the marriage arena is unconstitutional? Perhaps this prediction is quite sound, and state court judges would be justified if they chose to issue licenses on that basis, but I am not entirely sure that state court judges are required, as a matter of supreme federal law, to act on it now. All judges have a legal obligation to follow binding precedent from a higher court once it is handed down, but there may be no legal obligation—enforceable by contempt or otherwise—on lower court judges to see the writing on the wall.