Federal judge rules Kim Davis violated couples’ constitutional rights; will go to trial over damages

The former Rowan County Clerk spent time in jail for contempt of court for refusing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis came out of her office briefly to speak to a couple that wanted a...
Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis came out of her office briefly to speak to a couple that wanted a marriage license. (2015)(WKYT)
Published: Mar. 18, 2022 at 1:43 PM EDT
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ASHLAND, Ky. (WKYT) - A federal judge has ruled that former Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis violated the constitutional rights of two same-sex couples when she denied them marriage licenses during the summer of 2015.

In an order published Friday afternoon, United States District Judge David L. Bunning of the Eastern District of Kentucky granted summary judgment in a civil lawsuit that the two couples, David Ermold and David Moore, and James Yates and Will Smith, filed against Davis.

(Read the full court order below)

That settles - without a trial - the question of whether Davis violated their constitutional rights, but no decision has been made yet on whether Davis will be on the hook for the likely hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees accrued over the six-and-a-half years of litigation.

Bunning denied Davis’s request for summary judgment on the question of damages, meaning that decision will still go to trial and ultimately be left up to a jury. The plaintiffs are asking for compensatory and punitive damages, pre- and post-judgment interest, costs and attorneys’ fees.

“The plaintiffs could not be more happy,” Michael Gartland, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer. “As the court notes in the decision, this case has been pending since 2015. They couldn’t be more happy that they’re finally going to get their day in court and they’re confident justice will be served.”

In a news release, Liberty Counsel, the organization who represented Davis, noted that the case could go back to the Supreme Court over religious freedom concerns.

“Kim Davis is entitled to protection to an accommodation based on her sincere religious belief,” Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said in the release. “This case raises serious First Amendment free exercise of religion claims and has a high potential of reaching the Supreme Court.” (Read Liberty Counsel’s full response here.)

A status conference is scheduled to be held by telephone on April 1. A trial date will likely be set then.

Davis’s actions during the summer of 2015 turned Morehead into an epicenter of the battle over gay rights following the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which recognized a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry.

Davis said she acted “under God’s authority” when she, as the order summarizes, “famously refused to comply with Obergefell, which required her to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.”

David Ermold and David Moore were denied marriage licenses three times, and James Yates and Will Smith were denied licenses four times, before the two couples were granted marriage licenses by a deputy clerk while Davis spent five days in jail for contempt of court.

The two couples sued Davis, saying her actions caused “mental anguish, emotional distress, humiliation and reputation damages.”

The case has gone through several setbacks, appeals and delays over the course of the past six-and-a-half years.

Davis was previously found to have sovereign immunity in her professional capacity as county clerk, but did not have protection from civil liability in her personal capacity. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear her appeal on that issue.

Davis had previously asked state lawmakers for an accommodation for her religious beliefs so that she would not have to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but she did not receive one. The state later removed the clerk’s signature from marriage licenses.

Davis lost her bid for re-election in 2018.

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