Obergefell v. Hodges Decision
On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued their decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. In a 5-4 ruling, the Court decided that the right to marry is a fundamental right that is guaranteed to same sex couples under the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The decision requires all states to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples and to recognize same sex marriages validly performed in other states. Justice Anthony Kennedy issued the majority decision and all four dissenting judges each issued their own opinion. To read the full opinion and four dissents, you can go to Obergefell v. Hodges. This blog publication briefly discusses the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court and how it sets a legal precedent that not only allows for same-sex marriage to be recognized in Alabama, but also allows for same-sex couples residing in Alabama to obtain a simple and inexpensive uncontested divorce.
Legal Precedent and Stare Decisis
In the U.S. legal system, there are certain principles of law that guide how Courts make judicial decisions when a case is brought before them. When a judge makes a decision in any case, that decision sets a general precedent for how all future cases should be decided by that particular court and all lower courts. This creates a consistency in the court system, so that a Court doesn’t resolve an issue one way in a case and decide the opposite way in another similar case. The principle of legal precedent allows individuals to have a reasonable expectation that a court will rule the same way in their case as it has ruled in previous cases. If a court were to decide that something was unfair in one case, and then decide that the same actions were fair in an almost identical case, then nobody would ever be able to make reasonable assumptions about how that court would rule in the future when they went to file their case.
For example, if a state court takes the drug abuse of a parent into consideration in one child custody case, but refuses to consider the drug abuse of a parent in another custody case with the same set of facts, then nobody would ever know if drug abuse is a factor to be considered in the custody decisions of that court in the future. Legal precedent allows people to consider the potential filing of a legal proceeding with some reasonable expectation of how the Court would rule or decide their conflict if they should file it. This means that if the Court had decided something previously, then a potential filer seeking a different outcome with similar circumstances and facts, might be dissuaded from filing any action at all, since they could be reasonably assured that they would lose based on the prior decision of the Court. Likewise, individuals (and their attorneys) can look to past decisions to estimate how likely they would be to achieve the outcome they are seeking in their potential case and what factors will be considered by the Judge.
This principle of legal precedent also applies vertically, to Courts that have jurisdiction over other courts. A decision by the Alabama Supreme Court will generally be followed by all lower state courts due to this principle of legal precedent and something called stare decisis. Stare decisis is the principle that once a controversy is decided by one court, then it is decided once and for all by that court and all lower courts. So, if a decision is decided by a higher court, then it is decided once and for all in all lower courts as well. For example, if the Alabama Supreme Court decided that drug abuse by a parent should be considered in child custody cases, then all Alabama state courts will use this as a factor. The issue would have been resolved in these lower courts once and for all, and it would become binding precedent in all Alabama Courts making child custody decisions.
In the U.S. legal system, it is not quite as simple as this when considering how federal courts interact with state courts. The general rule is that state courts must follow U.S. Courts on issues of federal law, but the U.S. Courts must follow the decisions of the state law in question when determining issues of state law. For example, if the Plaintiff sued the Defendant in a personal injury matter, and the lawsuit was filed under an Alabama statute allowing for such a lawsuit (such as Alabama laws relating to contracts), then once a jury reached a verdict in that case and it was appealed all the way to the U.S. Appellate Courts, the federal courts would be deciding the appellate issues by using the laws of Alabama and applying them to the facts of the case.
However, the U.S. courts have binding precedent over the state courts under their jurisdiction, such that their decision should be followed by the courts beneath them. A decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the federal circuit that includes a particular state, would be binding on the states in that federal circuit. The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the country and, as such, the decisions made by this court are binding precedent for all lower courts, including all state courts. This is sometimes called vertical precedent, with the idea being that a precedent set by a higher court is binding on all lower courts.
In the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, same sex couples filed a lawsuit in the Federal District Courts in their respective states, alleging that their state officials were violating the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by denying them the right to marry and denying the marriages in other jurisdictions from being recognized in the state that they live in. This is a federal constitutional question.
The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has a Due Process and an Equal Protection clause. The Due Process clause states that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”. The majority decision issued in Obergefell v. Hodges held that the right to marry was a fundamental liberty because it is essential to the concept of individual freedom, it protects the most intimate type of relationship between two individuals, it secures family units by giving legal acceptance to building a family and raising children, and it has culturally been recognized as integral to the order of society. Because there is no difference between same sex unions and opposite sex unions with respect to these principles that would justify disallowing one type of union and not the other, the Court declared that to prohibit one from marrying, but not the other, is a violation of the Due Process clause.
The Court also held that for states to deny same-sex couples the right to the fundamental liberty to marry that other couples have, is denying them Equal Protection under the law. The four dissents were varied in their opinions with each justice issuing their own dissenting opinion and stating several different rationales for their respective dissents. One of Justice Roberts dissenting rationales was that such issues are beyond the purview of the U. S. Supreme Court. The major dissenting issue for Justices Scalia and Justice Alito was that the states should be able to decide these issues for themselves without interference from the federal courts. One of the major dissenting issues for Justice Thomas was that the decision oversteps the bound of the judiciary and is more proper for the legislatures than the Courts to decide.
Alabama Same Sex Divorce
So, what does this mean for same sex couples wanting to file for divorce in Alabama. According to the rule of stare decisis and legal precedent, this decision should force Alabama courts to recognize same sex marriages validly issued in other states and should force the State of Alabama to issue same sex marriage licenses. Certain probate judges across the state may decide that they don’t have to issue marriage licenses at all, to both opposite-sex or same-sex couples. This is because under their subjective reading of the Alabama statutes, the probate courts may issue marriage licenses, but they are not required to do so. However, it is highly unlikely that any probate judge would issue licenses to one type of couple and not the other since according to the Supreme Court decision this would violate the U.S. Constitution. Several major counties were already issuing marriage licenses prior to the Supreme Court decision, such as Jefferson County and Madison County, and most counties should begin issuing marriage licenses now.
The Supreme Court decision decided that states must recognize same-sex marriages as valid marriages under the law, which means that the Alabama courts can end these marriages as well. Since the U.S. Supreme Court decision is a legally binding precedent, the marriages should now be recognized by Alabama courts, and circuit court judges should be able to issue divorce decrees in same sex divorce cases. In some counties, it is possible that judges might make it difficult for same-sex couples to obtain a divorce by just not taking any action in the divorce, refusing to issue a divorce decree, or even attempting to force the parties to transfer the case to another judge or file elsewhere. This is possible, but it seems unlikely, since these judges would have difficulty producing a reasonable legal explanation for their actions. However, in most counties in Alabama there should not be any issue with the judges issuing decrees due to the recent decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.
There are still issues with the State of Alabama divorce and child support forms. These forms have places to list husband and wife, but do not allow for same-sex couples as they currently are formatted. Also, when filing online, through the Alacourt system, the electronic filing system will not allow for a same-sex Plaintiff and Defendant in an uncontested divorce. These logistical issues should be resolved eventually, but it is possible that the institutions and bureaucrats responsible for amending these forms and correcting these electronic filing issues could do nothing. However, with the first same-sex divorce decree being awarded in the Madison County Courts earlier this year, and marriage licenses being issued in Jefferson, Madison, and most major counties across Alabama, it would seem that uncontested divorces are available for most same-sex couples in Alabama that are seeking a simple and inexpensive end to their marriage.