U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle today issued a ruling stating that all Florida county clerks must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Hinkle ruled last August that Florida’s ban on legally recognizing same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. Hinkle was ruling in two cases — one brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida on behalf of eight couples, a Fort Myers widow, and SAVE, South Florida’s largest LGBT rights organization; the other by Jacksonville attorneys William Sheppard and Sam Jacobson on behalf of two couples.
Hinkle stayed his own ruling pending appeals. That stay was set to expire at midnight on Jan. 5, and when the U.S. Supreme Court last week refused to extend that stay, it cleared the way for same-sex marriages to begin in Florida on Tuesday, Jan. 6.
Some county clerks, however, said they would not issue licenses to same-sex couples because Hinkle’s ruling applied only to the Washington County clerk of court, who was named as a defendant in the case. The Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers released a legal memo earlier in December that Hinkle’s ruling only applied to marriage licenses issued by the clerk in Washington County and did not open the door for clerks in other parts of the state to issue licenses to same-sex couples and that clerks could face prosecution if they do so.
The Washington County clerk at the time the lawsuit was filed was Harold Bazzel. Bazzel was replaced by Lora Bell, elected in November, and Bell had asked Hinkle for a clarification on his ruling.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, Hinkle wrote: “Reasonable people can debate whether [his August ruling] 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.”
Hinkle warned that clerks who refuse to issue licenses to gay couples should “take note” that they are essentially inviting lawsuits and legal fees, he said, adding, “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.”
After Hinkle issued his clarification today (Jan. 1), ACLU of Florida LGBT Rights Staff Attorney Daniel Tilley said, “Clerks who were waiting for clarification from the court as to their obligations now have that clarity and should prepare to issue marriage licenses to couples in their counties waiting to marry as soon as the stay expires.”
He added, “We expect all clerks to respect the ruling. But if not, we are committed to ensuring marriage equality in all 67 counties in Florida and we would like to hear from any couples that are wrongfully denied a license after the stay expires.”
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has battled marriage equality every step of the way, issued a written statement today saying that her office, which has defended the state’s same-sex marriage ban, would not “stand in the way as clerks of court determine how to proceed.”
Read Hinkle’s order issued today here.