In 2015, Kim Davis made national news by refusing to issue marriage licenses, a key part of her job as the County Clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky. She was upset that the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges mandated marriage equality for same-sex couples. Her refusal to follow the law is still hurting Kentuckians today.
On Friday, a District Court judge ordered that the four couples who sued Davis should receive attorneys’ fees of $222,695. Judge David Bunning further said that Kentucky should pay this money, not Davis or Rowan County. He reasoned that Davis was representing the state when she went rogue and refused to do her job.
The state worked hard to undermine the couples’ case. To be eligible for attorneys’ fees, the plaintiffs have to prevail in the case. And the couples surely felt like they prevailed, as they received court-ordered marriage licenses. But their case was still under appeal when Kentucky passed a law in 2016 removing the county clerks’ names from marriage licenses. That effectively rendered the appeal moot, letting the state’s lawyers claim that, really, neither side prevailed. While the state managed to get a magistrate judge to buy that argument, Judge Bunning saw through that specious reasoning.
Kim Davis’s attorney, Mat Staver, is going to appeal the ruling even though Davis isn’t responsible for paying any money. That’s because Mat Staver is the founder of Liberty Counsel, a legal group that provides legal support for Christian bigots. Staver has used Davis as an unwitting pawn throughout her legal case to advance his own agenda.
Under Kentucky’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Davis had the right at any time to seek an accommodation to her religious beliefs in state court. She would have almost certainly succeeded, but that wouldn’t have generated much publicity. So Staver convinced Davis to pursue cases in federal courts, where she was bound to lose. She even went to jail for contempt of court thanks to Liberty Counsel’s bad advice.
Arguably, Liberty Counsel is the only winner out of this whole situation. The couples merely got the marriage licenses they were entitled to, since the fees they were awarded will all go to the lawyers. Davis won’t have to pay, but has done jail time and become a national laughingstock. Kentuckian taxpayers need to pay the cost of Davis’s transgressions. But Liberty Counsel used this case to raise donations with conservative Christians, which was really their goal all along.
While bigotry is expensive for the government, it’s still a lucrative business for legal groups that defend bigots.