Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore said today a federal judge’s ruling that the state’s ban on same-sex marriages is unconstitutional does not mean that probate judges have to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Moore said state courts are not compelled to follow decisions by federal district courts and federal appeals courts, although he said those decisions are considered “highly persuasive.”
A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court would be binding on the state’s courts, Moore said.
“That’s not the case now,” Moore said.
U.S. District Judge Ginny Granade ruled on Friday that an amendment to the Alabama Constitution banning same-sex marriage and the recognition of same-sex marriages entered in other states is unconstitutional.
In an interview this afternoon, Moore elaborated on his reasons for writing a letter to Gov. Robert Bentley about the ruling and responded to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s judicial ethics complaint against him.
The SPLC accuses Moore of violating the Alabama Canons of Judicial Ethics, including the prohibition on judges making public comments about cases pending before any court.
Moore said his letter to the governor was not public comment on the case. He said as chief justice he is also the top administrator of the state court system.
“My duty as chief justice and administrative head of the court system is to enlighten those courts under my authority as to what the law is in this matter,” Moore said.
“And the law is clearly that federal district courts and appellate courts are only persuasive authority to the courts of this state because the judges of state courts are equally competent to interpret federal law.”
Moore said court precedents support his position. He quoted opinions from former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Clarence Thomas.
“In our federal system, a state trial court’s interpretation of federal law is no less authoritative than that of the federal court of appeals in whose circuit the trial court is located,” Thomas wrote in a 1993 opinion that is noted in a 2004 Alabama Supreme Court case, Glass v. Birmingham Southern RR Co.
“We as state judges have the same right to interpret the constitution as do these federal judges,” Moore said. “That’s why we’re not bound by their opinion. But if the Supreme Court rules, it’s a different situation.”
The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments about state same-sex marriage bans in April and is expected to rule this summer.
Moore declined to say how he would respond if the Supreme Court rules the bans unconstitutional.
“I’ll have to make that decision when it comes,” he said.
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Mike Cason, firstname.lastname@example.org