On May 7, 2014, a same-sex couple, who were legally married in California, filed this lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against the state of Alabama. One plaintiff had given birth to a child, whom the other plaintiff wanted to adopt. Under Alabama law, non-biological parents may adopt their "spouse's child." The plaintiffs were not considered spouses, however, because the state did not recognize same-sex marriages. As a result, their adoption petition was denied and the couple filed suit. The plaintiffs, represented by private counsel, asked the court to declare Alabama's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional, under the Due Process, Equal Protection, and Full Faith and Credit Clauses. They also asked for an injunction, ordering the defendants to recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions and to grant the plaintiffs' adoption petition.
On June 12, 2014, the plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment. The next day, the District Court for the Southern District of Alabama (Judge Callie V. S. Granade) found the motion to be premature. On August 20, 2014, Judge Granade adopted the magistrate judge's recommendation and granted several parties' motions to dismiss: the Alabama Attorney General was now the only defendant.
On January 23, 2015, Judge Granade granted the plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, finding that Alabama's same-sex marriage ban violated the Due Process and the Equal Protection Clauses and enjoining the state attorney general from enforcing that ban. The freedom to marry was a fundamental right, the court held, protected by the Constitution. In order for Alabama to restrict that right, its same-sex marriage ban had to be narrowly tailored and it had to serve a compelling state interest. The court rejected the state's purported interests as either not compelling or overly broad. Thus, the ban was unconstitutional. Two days later, the district court stayed its injunction until February 9, giving the defendant time to seek a further stay pending appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
On January 28, at plaintiffs' request, Judge Granade clarified her order. The Alabama Probate Judges Association had stated to the press that, despite the ruling, they were bound by Alabama law and could not issue same-sex marriage licenses. The Court stated that because the judgment was stayed, the Alabama probate courts were not required to follow the judgment. However, if the stay were lifted, the U.S. Constitution would require the probate judges to issue same-sex marriage licenses, because the court's order had found that Alabama's marriage laws were unconstitutional.
On February 3, 2015, the Eleventh Circuit sua sponte
consolidated the appeals in this case and in Strawser v. Strange (PB-AL-0010
in this Clearinghouse), and denied the Alabama Attorney General's motions for a stay pending appeal. In response, the Attorney General filed an application for a stay with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, the Circuit Justice for the Eleventh Circuit. That same day, the District Court denied plaintiffs' request to lift the stay.
Late on February 8, 2015, with the district court's stay set to expire, the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Roy Moore, sent an order to probate judges and state employees, threatening them with legal action by the governor if they issued or recognized same-sex marriage licenses. The chief justice claimed that the district court orders bound only the Alabama Attorney General and his employees and not Alabama's probate judges.
On February 9, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the application for stay, with Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, dissenting from the denial. Strange v. Searcy, 135 S. Ct. 940 (2015). As a result, Judge Granade's orders took effect: the ban on same-sex marriage was now illegal in Alabama, at least according to the federal courts. Alabama's probate judges faced competing orders: the district court's would allow same-sex marriage, but Chief Justice Moore's would not. The result was legal chaos. Some probate judges followed the federal court order and issued same-sex marriage licenses but most probate judges refused and many ceased issuing marriage licenses entirely.
In the plaintiffs' county, Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis refused to issue any licenses that day. Plaintiffs responded by filing a motion to hold him in contempt, which Judge Granade rejected because the probate judge was not a party to the case.
That same day the plaintiffs re-filed their adoption petition. Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis issued an initial adoption decree but he added language saying "that this Decree is qualified in nature, and the Court will not issue a final adoption order until a final ruling is issued in the United States Supreme Court on the Marriage Act cases before it." The non-biological parent brought a new lawsuit against the probate judge for including this language. Searcy v. Davis (PB-AL-0011
in this Clearinghouse) Probate Judge Davis eventually removed the qualified wording from the adoption petition and the court dismissed that suit.
In this case, Searcy v. Bentley, the only remaining issue involves attorneys' fees. On February 12, 2015, Judge Granade granted the plaintiffs' motion extending the time to file a petition for attorneys' fees until 30 days after the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (PB-OH-0003
in this Clearinghouse). Megan Dolan - 07/01/2014
Katherine Reineck - 03/21/2015
David Hamstra - 04/08/2015