Are Tennessee Officials Content to Ignore the Law?

It is becoming increasingly apparent to me that we have a number of state officials (non-legislators) and local elected officials who either don’t know the law or are content with ignoring it. An opinion from Attorney General Slatery proves my point.

I was recently preparing for oral arguments in a lawsuit I am handling on behalf of various ministers and residents of Williamson County against the Williamson County clerk. In the course of my preparations, I ran across an opinion from our state’s attorney general that proved the point I was going to try to make to the court.

The Background Context That Exposes the Lawlessness

To appreciate one of the points I was going to make in court, you need to understand what the lawsuit is about.

The lawsuit alleges that Tennessee’s marriage license law, which requires that applicants be a male and female, may be unconstitutional because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015. The Supreme Court “held” that laws like Tennessee’s were invalid, but despite what you may think based on reports by the media, that law was not part of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision.

In other words, no court has “officially” ruled on whether Obergefell invalidated our law. That probably seems like a technicality, but that’s where the attorney general’s opinion comes in.

The Attorney General Says, ‘Obey the Law’

One of the points I wanted to make in my oral argument was that until a court rules that our law was somehow “amended” by Obergefell, no court decision has ever authorized the county clerk to issue a license to anyone other than male and female applicants. Until then, my argument was that the county clerk had to obey the existing law and that by issuing licenses to same-sex couples, the clerk was acting illegally.

It turns out that my view of the law is the same as Attorney General Slatery’s!

In 1984, the attorney general was asked if elected officials such as county clerks still had to obey a state law even if the attorney general had issued an opinion to the effect that the courts would hold the law unconstitutional. This is important because I’m sure our attorney general would say that our marriage license law would be invalid if ever challenged in court.

Here is what the attorney general said:

[U]nder relevant constitutional principles, the public, individuals, and ministerial officers [like County Clerks] must presume a state statute to be constitutional until it is declared unconstitutional by a court of competent jurisdiction.

What the Attorney General’s Opinion Means

That means a county clerk has no legal authority to determine if our law is unconstitutional after Obergefell and certainly has no authority to determine if the effect of Obergefell was to judicially remove the language in the statute requiring applicants to be a male and female.

The attorney general’s opinion rightly concludes that only a court can interpret what effect Obergefell had on our marriage license law. Moreover, the attorney general essentially said that even if he tells the county clerks that Obergefell rewrote the law, that opinion is not a court’s opinion and the law should still be obeyed.

What This Means for Our Attorney General

After reading that attorney general’s opinion, I have a lot of questions. Here are two of them:

  • Why has our state attorney general not told the county clerks to obey the law until a court says otherwise? After all, that is the attorney general’s “official” opinion.
  • Why is the attorney general sitting out the lawsuit we’ve filed instead of joining us in asking the court what, if anything, is left of our marriage license law? Opposing our view of Obergefell seems better to me than being apathetic about the law being flat out ignored.

What This Means for All Our Elected Officials

But this question is the real kicker for me: Why hasn’t some state or local official brought their own legal action to have a court determine what the effect of Obergefell was on our law?

The only thing I can figure is that they either support same-sex “marriage,” or, more likely, being lawless is just easier for them. Apart from our little lawsuits, no one seems to care if they disregard the law.

I guess we’ll soon find out if even our judges care whether our elected officials obey the law.

Listen to the key exchange I had with the Court of Appeals about this point.


David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.

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