Travis County is prepped and raring to go.
If the U.S. Supreme Court rules that same-sex couples have the right to marry, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir plans to be ready.
The clerk’s office, which issues and records marriage licenses from its location at 5501 Airport Blvd., plans to offer extended evening and weekend hours to accommodate the pent-up demand from gay and lesbian couples who have been unable to marry under state law.
“We’re hoping for crowds,” said DeBeauvoir, a strong supporter of same-sex marriage.
When the Supreme Court issues its ruling — expected by the end of June, when the court typically finishes its term — a team of lawyers from the county attorney’s office will scour the decision to determine its implications for Travis County.
If the ruling allows, the goal is to begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples as quickly as possible.
Plans include setting up special areas in the clerk’s office dedicated to marriage licenses and offering extended office hours dedicated to serving those seeking a marriage license. The hours and availability of marriage licenses will be updated on the clerk’s website.
County officials also expect couples to drive to Austin from all over the state, particularly those living in counties that haven’t prepared for the court ruling.
That’s a smart plan, because a lot of other counties are being more cautious about it right now.
Representatives from the Bexar and Travis county clerks’ offices say they’re prepared to physically modify marriage license application forms, which are generated by the state Vital Statistics Unit and currently say “male” and “female.” However, clerks in Dallas and El Paso counties—both Democrats—said they’d be reluctant to do so. Clerks in Harris and Tarrant counties, both Republicans, didn’t return calls seeking comment.
El Paso County Clerk Delia Briones said she reached out to the Vital Statistics Unit about the forms in February, but was told to wait until after the court rules.
“What am I going to do, ask the person who’s the man and who’s the woman? I can’t do that,” Briones said. “You want to be proactive and be prepared, but they’re stalling it at the state level, so my hands are tied.”
Chris Van Deusen, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, which includes the Vital Statistics Unit, said that after the Supreme Court rules, officials will consult with the attorney general’s office to determine what changes are needed.
“Until the court rules, [we] won’t be able to know the impact on current operations or forms,” Van Deusen said.
Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Dallas County Clerk John Warren suggested his office won’t issue licenses to same-sex couples until the forms are modified by the Vital Statistics Unit.
“I don’t think Travis and Bexar may have thought it through completely because the marriage license application is a state form that is provided to the county clerks as the ‘local registrar,’” Warren said. “I can assume those two counties will manually strike through the language on the application. … The problem I have with this is that it makes the action of the clerk deliberate with the strike-out. That shows a direct intent to ignore the law.”
Ken Upton Jr., Dallas-based senior counsel for the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, said if the Supreme Court rules in favor of same-sex marriage, gay couples could sue the Vital Statistics Unit and quickly get a federal judge to order officials to immediately change the application forms.
“I think there will be some places where this is a problem, but it isn’t going to be a problem for very long,” Upton said. “I think a clerk that hides behind Vital Statistics, when the law clearly states you have to let them get married, risks personal liability.”
Upton said it would also be illegal for clerks to stop issuing licenses to all couples, because they’d be interfering with the fundamental right to marry under the U.S. Constitution. If clerks or state officials refused to comply with a federal judge’s order, they could face punitive damages into the millions of dollars, he said.
“If the Supreme Court rules in our favor, I think there will be relatively little resistance in most places,” Upton said. “Where there are people resisting and throwing up obstacles, I think it will be a fireworks show worth watching, because the truth is they are going to get their heads handed to them.”
I think there will be some chaos for a couple of days, and for sure some number of county clerks will need to be whacked upside the head with a clue stick, but it will get sorted out fairly quickly. The only thing left is rear-guard action.
With legislation to block county clerks from issuing same-sex marriage licenses dying in the Legislature, it is not surprising that social conservatives are asking Governor Greg Abbott to call a special session on the issue.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected later this month to rule on whether state bans on same-sex marriage are constitutional, and the conventional wisdom is the court is going to say the bans are unconstitutional. Social conservatives had hoped to block implementation in Texas by passing a law that banned the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses, giving the state a means for continued litigation. The conservatives hope to use Harris v. McRae, 448 U.S. 297 (1980) to argue that the federal government cannot force states to spend local money to enforce a federal policy; i.e., issuing licenses for same-sex marriage.
After a legislative session where Abbott can claim a level of success, I find it difficult to believe he would call a special session on such a divisive issue, especially while he is still signing and vetoing bills. But on a single-issue special session, the only thing to stop a bill such as this from passing quickly would be a quorum break by Democrats.
The only prediction I will make is that some currently obscure government functionary is going to make himself or herself a hero/martyr figure among this crowd for a bold act of stupid intransigence that will get stomped on in with all due haste. Those of you that track current events and local stories for “year in review” stories, you will have much to keep track of.