Tanco v. Haslam Final Order and silhouette of a man with a question mark

Meet My Tennessee Political Hero

Political heroes are hard to come by these days. But there is a current officeholder in our state who tops my short list. In a lineup of random politicians, you might never suspect he’d be a political hero. Let me introduce you to him and tell you what he did.

Unlikely Looking Hero

My political hero is 77-year-old Bradley County Commissioner Howard Thompson. His formal academic education ended with his high school diploma (which only matters if your name is Lori Loughlin or Felicity Huffman). He drives a pick-up truck as part of his flea market business, not as a political “common man” ploy.

What makes him a hero is that he was willing to do something out of the ordinary that he knew would be misunderstood by most, including his fellow commissioners, in order to defend what he believes.

What My Political Hero Believes

Lots of Tennesseans and elected officials, including, I suspect, most of his fellow commissioners, believe like Commissioner Thompson. He believes:

• marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman,
• both the U.S. Constitution and the Tennessee Constitution should be upheld,
• the dual sovereignty of state and federal governments established and protected by those constitutions is important, and
• the separation of powers taught in eighth-grade civics means courts don’t make laws.

What Makes Him a Hero

But the difference between Commissioner Thompson and other political officials was his willingness to take a measured, strategic, and non-revolutionary state-militia-at-the-courthouse approach to defending those beliefs.

As a “lowly” county commissioner and citizen, he did the only thing he could do to defend his beliefs (and probably those of most of his constituents)—sue his own county’s clerk for violating the Tennessee Constitution by issuing a license for marriage to two people of the same sex.

Before you think that qualifies him for quack status, not hero status, read on. His understanding of basic civics and willingness to act on his beliefs is what separates him from other politicians.

Thompson Understood What Most Didn’t

Commissioner Thompson is a gentle, humble soul who would never impugn the integrity of his local county clerk or his fellow commissioners, but he understood the constitutional gravity of what began taking place the day the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.

That decision purported to say that the 14th Amendment prohibited state laws that defined a marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman.

Even if this conclusion is accepted, Commissioner Thompson intuitively knew that our whole state was acting lawlessly. The lawsuit proved him right, even though the presiding judge dismissed it last week.

Tennessee’s Constitution Is Being Ignored by All but the Commissioner1

Page 2 of the Tanco Final Order and Permanent Injunction, signed by Judge Trauger.

Page 2 of the Tanco Final Order and Permanent Injunction, signed by Judge Trauger.

He was proved right by the Final Judgment and Permanent Injunction issued by federal district court Judge Aleta Trauger after and as a result of the Obergefell decision in the same-sex “marriage” lawsuit that had been filed against the state of Tennessee, Tanco v. Haslam.

The second page of Judge Trauger’s order says, in full:

Article XI, section 18, of the Tennessee Constitution and Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-3-113 are invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution to the extent that they exclude same-sex couples from the recognition of their civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples, when their marriage was lawfully entered into out of state.

The “to the extent” language means the injunction applies only to the provisions of Tennessee’s laws that govern the state’s recognition of marriages “lawfully entered into out of state” when that out-of-state couple moves here.

Thus, the injunction does not apply to the provisions of the Tennessee Constitution and the referenced statute, Tennessee’s Defense of Marriage Act, that govern what laws the state can have for the licensure of marriages, the licenses being issued by Tennessee’s county clerks.

That means those provisions of our state’s constitution limiting the power of the state to license anything other than a marriage between a man and a woman are still in force. And those provisions will lawfully be in force until some judge enjoins their enforcement or the people vote to repeal the amendment.

Since neither of those things has happened, all of Tennessee’s county clerks are going beyond the statutory authority they have been given by issuing a license for a relationship called a marriage that is defined without regard to the biological sex of the parties.

And they are doing so in violation of the still-applicable provisions of Tennessee’s Constitution.

When Did Courts Start ‘Making Laws’?

I know some will foolishly say, “But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled. The Court legalized same-sex marriage. You can’t deny same-sex couples their rights.”

Such is foolish because they, including many lawyers and judges, have forgotten what Commissioner Thompson remembered from his eighth-grade civics class, “Courts can’t make laws.”

If a license for this new understanding and form of marriage is to be issued by the state, then the state’s legislative body must authorize somebody to issue it. Judges can’t, and county clerks weren’t.

By the express terms of Tennessee’s Constitution, county clerks’ duties can only be “prescribed” by the General Assembly.

But the General Assembly has never prescribed to our county clerks any duty to issue a license for a relationship defined without regard to the biological sex of the parties, even if U.S. Supreme Court now wants to call that kind of relationship a marriage.

If people would just think about it for a moment, they’d realize that being authorized by statute to issue a license for a relationship defined in terms of the biological sex of the parties is fundamentally and logically not the same as having authority to issue a license for a relationship defined without regard to the biological sex of the parties.

Commissioner Thompson understood these basic constitutional principles and he stood up for them, or at least he did until the judge said he didn’t have a right (“standing” is the legal term) to bring suit to stop this lawlessness.

Not in Vain

But, Commissioner Thompson, don’t despair. In the coming months, I trust you will find that your heroics have not been in vain.

If you now appreciate what Commissioner Thompson did and want to be part of stopping the lawlessness, let me know by sending an email to FACT Director of Communications Laura Bagby at laura.bagby@factn.org and be sure to put “Thompson” in the email subject line. Just don’t expect all your friends to consider you a hero if you do.

NOTES

  1. Actually, Commissioner Thompson’s pastor, Guinn Green, understood and joined him in the lawsuit, as did a couple of pastors and citizens who filed a similar lawsuit in Williamson County. But Commissioner Thompson is the only elected official among them and therefore the only one that risked any political heat.

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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2 replies
  1. Robert Roark
    Robert Roark says:

    I have just finished re-reading an article by Bill Federer titled “Why Founding Fathers were concerned about Judiciary”. It reviews the initial concern over the likelihood that the Judiciary as set forth in the Constitution would/could become a political disaster. Sadly, this concern has been abundantly realized. FACT is a solid bulwark pushing back against the usurpation of power by the Judiciary at the state and federal levels. I agree that Commissioner Thompson is a hero, but I also consider David Fowler to be long-standing hero. I am so grateful for the time and energy he and the staff have devoted to this issue and look forward to the “grinding” being complete.

    • David Fowler
      David Fowler says:

      You are very kind. I thank God for moving me toward a legal education instead of following my Dad’s footsteps into accounting and put me in a position where, with the support of you and many others, I’m able to work on these things. This IS a partnership with our supporters and a team effort here in the office.

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