Happy New Year for LGBT couples: Judge Hinkle says yes, his ruling applies in all counties

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The federal judge who declared Florida's same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional has further clarified his ruling, and in so doing has given a New Year's Day gift to every LGBT couple in Florida. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who made his decision on the marriage ban last August in a case brought by a gay male couple in Washington County, announced today that it applies not just in that county but in counties across the state.

Lawyers representing Florida's clerks of court, who are charged with issuing marriage licenses, had muddied the waters after Hinkle's decision, issuing memos that said it applied only in Washington County and that clerks who issued licenses anywhere else would be breaking state law. Washington County's clerk filed an emergency motion asking that Hinkle clarify his injunction. His response, which can be read here in its entirety, includes this eloquently simple passage (bolds mine):

The founders of this republic adopted a Constitution and a system for its enforcement. When there are disagreements about what the Constitution requires, those who are affected may seek a definitive ruling in court. These plaintiffs did that in this case. The Secretary and Surgeon General—as duly empowered officials of the State of Florida, represented by the Attorney General—joined issue. So did the Clerk. The result was an explicit ruling that Florida’s same-sex-marriage ban is unconstitutional.
The United States Supreme Court and federal courts of appeals had stayed similar rulings in other cases. I stayed the ruling in this case while those stays were in effect and for 91 more days—long enough to allow the defendants to seek a further stay in the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and, if unsuccessful there, in the United States Supreme Court. The defendants did that. They lost. The United States Supreme Court allowed the ruling in this case to take effect.

History records no shortage of instances when state officials defied federal court orders on issues of federal constitutional law. Happily, there are many more instances when responsible officials followed the law, like it or not. Reasonable people can debate whether the ruling in this case was correct and who it binds. There should be no debate, however, on the question whether a clerk of court may follow the ruling, even for marriage-license applicants who are not parties to this case. 

And, he adds, "a clerk who chooses not to follow the ruling" —  who, in other words, refuses to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple — can be sued.

Equality Florida issued this statement on Judge Hinkle's order: 

We believe Judge Hinkle's order was clear from the beginning. We are pleased that he has put an end to the unnecessary confusion caused by a poorly written legal memo by a private law firm. We look forward to January 6th when couples who have waited for this day can finally be married and those of us married elsewhere are finally able to fully protect our families.

Despite the confusion over the original ruling, many county clerks had already begun making plans for Jan. 6, in case this final hurdle for same-sex marriage in Florida were cleared. Hillsborough County Clerk of Circuit Court Pat Frank was even looking at the possibility of marrying couples in Joe Chillura Courthouse Square in the event of overflow crowds.

It looks like she's going to have a very busy Tuesday.

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