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Will the Legislature Finally Bite Back?

There is supposed to be a balance of powers between the three branches of state government. But that balance is out of whack, tilted in favor of the supposed “least dangerous branch”—the judiciary. The proverbial tail, in this case the judiciary, is now wagging the dog, otherwise known as the state Legislature. After last week, I think you’re going to see some of the “dogs” in the Legislature bite back.

The spark that lit a fire under some legislators was a decision last week by Judge Greg McMillan in Knox County. He decided he could rewrite a statute because he thought it was unconstitutional. No judge has that power.

Judges Can Only Interpret Ambiguous Terms

Judges do have the power to interpret a law and, in the words of the Tennessee Supreme Court, “if an ambiguous term has created a constitutional problem which may be solved by construction, courts have a duty to do so.” In other words, if a term is “ambiguous,” then courts should give that term a meaning that would result in the statute being constitutional.

That, of course, is just common sense; it’s simply a recognition that the Legislature’s intent would always presumably be to enact a constitutional law.

But if a term is not ambiguous and that term makes the law unconstitutional, then a judge should hold the law unconstitutional and let the Legislature figure out what to do next.

Is ‘Husband’ an Ambiguous Term?

Given that legal primer, let me ask, “Is the word ‘husband’ ambiguous to you?” Let me ask it another way: “Is a ‘husband’ always a male?” Before you answer, keep in mind that even when two women marry, neither of them goes by the moniker “husband.”

My guess is you answered correctly, that a “husband” is a male. But my rather straightforward question was apparently too tricky for Judge McMillan and for our attorney general, Herbert Slatery. For them, the word “husband” in a statute dealing with the insemination of a “married woman” with the consent of her “husband” is apparently ambiguous.

The reason I know that is because Judge McMillan ruled last week, at the urging of our attorney general, that the word “husband” needed to be interpreted. Remember, only ambiguous words need interpreting.

Judge McMillan agreed with General Slatery that the word “husband” needed to be interpreted in a “gender neutral” fashion to mean “spouse,” so that the word “husband” could include a wife.

The excuse given by the judge and General Slatery for this act of judicial legislation was that the law would be unconstitutional if the word “husband” was given its normal and ordinary meaning, which, by the way, is how the Tennessee Supreme Court says words should be interpreted.

Are ‘Husband’ and ‘Wife’ Really Interchangeable Words?

And why would a statute governing the relationship between a “husband” and “wife” be unconstitutional? General Slatery said it is now unconstitutional to have a statute pertaining only to husbands and wives because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s same-sex “marriage” decision, Obergefell v. Hodges. According to him, Obergefell requires judges to rewrite all existing laws governing the family in a sex-neutral way.

Obergefell did no such thing. In fact, the Texas attorney general recently argued before its state Supreme Court that Obergefell only dealt with the licensure of marriages and the rest of family law was still within the exclusive jurisdiction of the states.

General Slatery Leads Judge Astray

What is maddening is that until General Slatery got involved in the Knoxville case, Judge McMillan had gotten it right. He had ruled, “The statute is not ambiguous. This Court does not read the United States Supreme Court’s opinion in Obergefell . . . to override this Court’s duty to interpret statutes in a manner that gives effect to their plain meaning.”

But when one of the parties asked the judge to consider whether a normal reading of the statute might mean it was unconstitutional, in came the attorney general to “save” the statute from ignominious defeat with his husband-can-really-mean-wife theory of sex and marriage.

What that means is that you can lay this bad decision and the abdication of the state’s jurisdiction over family law directly at the feet of General Slatery.

Some Legislators Are Barking; Will They Bite?

What will the Legislature do now that Judge McMillan thinks rewriting unambiguous laws to make them constitutional is his job—not the Legislature’s?

Moreover, what will they do now that they know their state Supreme Court appointed lawyer—General Slatery—thinks the state should abdicate its jurisdiction over family law to the U.S. Supreme Court and thinks that it is the role of judges, not the Legislature, to rewrite unambiguous laws if they think the law, as written, is unconstitutional?

Stay tuned. Based on a meeting I had the other day, I suspect that come next January some of our legislators may just bite back and try to restore the balance of power between themselves and the judiciary and its lackey, the attorney general. The barking, at least, has started.


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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