Thursday, June 11, 2015

More Messy Procedural Decisions In Arkansas Same-Sex Marriage Litigation

The procedural messiness that has surrounded much of the litigation over same-sex marriage manifested itself again in two recent judicial decisions in Arkansas.  In Henson v. Walther, (AR Cir. Ct., June 9, 2015), an Arkansas trial court judge held that marriages of same-sex couples performed in the state between May 9 and May 16 are valid.  Here is the background:

On May 9, a state trial court held that the state's constitutional ban, and two statutory provisions making same-sex marriages void violate the 14th Amendment's equal protection and due process clauses. However on May 14, the Arkansas Supreme Court pointed out that the trial court had not invalidated a third provision in Arkansas law prohibiting the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and had not included language actually enjoining enforcement of the bans on same-sex marriage that it declared unconstitutional.  The trial court responded on May 15 by issuing an order nunc pro tunc granting an injunction and including the omitted third statutory provision. The trial court made it all retroactive to May 9, indicating that this had been the original intent in issuing the May 9 decision. (See prior posting.) On May 16, the Arkansas Supreme Court issued an order staying the trial court's order pending appeal.

The Director of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration has refused to recognize the validity of same-sex marriages performed between May 9 and May 16, arguing that the trial court lacked authority to make its May 15 ruling retroactive. He directed same-sex couples married during that period to file separate rather than joint tax returns, and refused to permit same-sex spouses to enroll in the state employee health insurance plan. In Henson the trial court judge disagreed, asserting that the state Finance Director was acting with "shameless disrespect for fundamental fairness and equality." AP reports on the decision.

Meanwhile an appeal of the underlying same-sex marriage challenge has been pending in the Arkansas Supreme Court for over a year-- bogged down in part by an unusual dispute over who are the proper Supreme Court justices to decide the case.  In September 2014, Justice Cliff Hoofman recused himself and the governor appointed Robert W. McCorkindale to serve as special justice in place of Hoofman. The case was briefed and argued before the end of 2014, but the state Supreme Court ended its term without handing down a decision. When the new term began, two new justices had been elected, one of whom was Justice Rhonda Wood who replaced Justice Hoofman.  She insisted she had a right to participate in deciding the appeal.  In Smith v. Wright, (AR Sup. Ct., May 7, 2015), with Jutice Wood and two other justices recusing themselves and replaced by 3 special justices, the Court held that newly-elected Justice Wood, not the holdover special justice, should participate in deciding the appeal.