In 1832, in the wake of a controversial Supreme Court ruling, President Andrew Jackson is rumored to have said, in reference to the high court’s chief justice, “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!”
It’s unclear if the story is apocryphal, but the point of the anecdote is that federal courts aren’t responsible for enforcing their own ruling. There’s an implicit understanding that in the United States, it’s up to other officials to honor the law and respect the judiciary’s decisions.
It’s a principle that’s worth keeping in mind as developments unfold in Alabama.
Alabama’s top judicial official, Roy Moore, issued a memo on Tuesday telling the state’s probate judges that they’re not required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples though a federal court has ruled they must. […]“I hope this memorandum will assist weary, beleaguered, and perplexed probate judges to unravel the meaning of the actions of the federal district court in Mobile, namely that the rulings in the marriage cases do not require you to issue marriage licenses that are illegal under Alabama law,” Moore wrote.He later added that the judges “would in my view be acting in violation of their oaths to uphold the Alabama Constitution if they issued marriage licenses prohibited under Alabama law.”
Moore, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, added that federal courts lack “constitutional authority” to rule on state laws, which is why, according to Moore, state courts can feel free to ignore the ruling clearing the way for marriage equality in Alabama.
This may not end well.
As we discussed last week, Moore, who’s spent much of his career espousing ridiculous legal theories, is actively encouraging Alabama officials to ignore a federal court ruling he doesn’t like. Indeed, he’s explicitly made this argument to Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R), urging the governor to follow Moore’s lead and defy the federal courts.
Bentley and state Attorney General Luther Strange (R) are, at least for now, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene before same-sex marriages begin in Alabama next week. But the question remains: is the state prepared to honor the federal courts or not?
What will Alabama do if some officials refuse to follow the law? What will the Obama administration do if all state officials agree en masse to ignore federal court rulings? Watch this space.
Postscript: Moore isn’t the only Alabama official who’s displeased with the notion of equal-marriage rights. Alabama Public Service Commissioner Chip Beeker (R) responded to the news with a rant that one local reporter described as “full-bore crazy.”