The American Bar Association’s Standing committee on Ethics released a formal opinion last week on guidance for judges performing same-sex marriage: In wake of landmark decision, ABA issues guidance for judges performing same-sex marriages. Their guidance interprets the Model Code of Judicial Conduct.

The Formal Opinion 485 incorporates procedures and policies developed for judges in Ohio, Arizona, and Nebraska. The 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision found the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from refusing to license marriages between same-sex individuals and mandates that states recognize marriages between two same-sex people when lawfully performed in other states.

There are judges whose performance of same-sex marriages is mandatory and others who can choose whether to perform such marriages. The opinion of the committee interpreting the Model Code of Judicial Conduct is that ethics are violated when a judge performs marriages of opposite-sex couples yet refuses to perform marriages of same-sex couples. A judge may decline to perform all marriages for members of the public, yet still do weddings for family and friend, without violating the code of conduct. But the judge has to be consistent and not discriminate in performing weddings for members of the public.

Judges must maintain their impartiality and be free from bias and prejudice. It is not enough for a judge to actually be impartial, the public must perceive the judge to be impartial also. Refusing to perform weddings based on the sexual orientation of a couple where state law authorizes such shows prejudice or partiality.

“The public is entitled to expect that judges will perform their activities and duties fairly, impartially, and free from bias and prejudice. Further, while actual impartiality is necessary, it is not sufficient; the public must also perceive judges to be impartial. If state law authorizes or obligates a judge to perform marriages, a judge’s refusal to perform same-sex marriages while agreeing to perform marriages for opposite-sex couples is improper under Rules 1.1, 2.2, 2.3(A), and 2.3(B) Model Code….”

“Model Rule 1.1 obligates judges to comply with the law. Obergefell makes clear that the U.S. Constitution prohibits state officials from engaging in discrimination and bias toward gays and lesbians in decisions related to same-sex marriage; in short, the decision establishes law with which judges must comply. Model Rule 2.2 requires judges to “uphold and apply [this] law,” and further directs that judges “perform all duties of judicial office fairly and impartially.” As noted earlier, the term “impartiality” as used in this context means “the absence of bias or prejudice in favor of, or against, particular parties or classes of parties.” Furthermore, Model Rule 2.3(A) specifically requires judges to perform their duties free from bias and prejudice. Model Rule 2.3(B) prohibits a judge who is performing judicial duties from manifesting bias or prejudice based on sex, gender, sexual orientation, or marital status. Indeed, we are aware of no state judicial ethics opinion concluding that similar judicial code provisions permit judges who perform marriage ceremonies for opposite sex couples to refuse to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples….”

“A judge may choose to perform no marriages, or to perform marriages exclusively for family and friends. If judges opt to perform marriages only for friends and relatives, however, they cannot refuse to perform same-sex marriages for friends and relatives. Again, to refuse to perform same-sex marriages for friends and relatives while performing marriages of opposite-sex friends and relatives would violate Model Rules 2.2, 2.3(A), and 2.3(B). The fact that the judge’s conduct affects a smaller group of people—that is, friends and family versus the public at large— does not change the judge’s ethical obligations….”

The opinion concludes:

“A judge for whom performing marriages is either a mandatory part of his or her official duties or an optional exercise of judicial authority violates the Model Code of Judicial Conduct by refusing to perform marriages for same-sex couples while agreeing to perform marriages of opposite-sex couples. In a jurisdiction where a judge is not obligated to perform marriages, the judge may decline to perform all marriages for members of the public. A judge who chooses not to perform any marriages for the public may still perform marriages for family and friends, so long as the judge does not discriminate between same-sex and opposite-sex couples when performing marriages for family and friends.”

The American Bar Association is one of the largest voluntary professional membership organizations in the world, with more than 400,000 members.

Read Formal Opinion 485 here: https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/images/news/2019/02/formal_op_485.pdf

For more information on Obergefell v. Hodges see the Oyez site here: https://www.oyez.org/cases/2014/14-556 They have links to the oral arguments, opinion announcements, majority and dissenting opinions.

 

 

 

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Michelle May O’Neil has 27 years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes…

Michelle May O’Neil has 27 years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes genuine compassion for her client’s difficulties, yet she can be relentless when in pursuit of a client’s goals. One judge said of Ms. O’Neil, “She cannot be out-gunned, out-briefed, or out-lawyered!”

Family Law Specialist

Ms. O’Neil became a board-certified family law specialist by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in 1997 and has maintained her certification since that time. While representing clients in litigation before the trial court is an important part of her practice, Ms. O’Neil also handles appellate matters in the trial court, courts of appeals and Texas Supreme Court. Lawyers frequently consult with Ms. O’Neil on their litigation cases about specialized legal issues requiring particularized attention both at the trial court and appellate levels. This gives her a unique perspective and depth of perception that benefits both her litigation and appellate clients.

Top Lawyers in Texas and America

Ms. O’Neil has been named to the list of Texas SuperLawyers for many years, 2011-2018, a peer-voted honor given to only about 5% of the lawyers in the state of Texas. In 2014-2018, Ms. O’Neil received the special honor of being named by Texas SuperLawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Texas, Top 100 Lawyers in Texas, and Top 100 Lawyers in DFW. She was named one of the Best Lawyers in America for 2016 and received an “A-V” peer review rating by Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directories for the highest quality legal ability and ethical standards.

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A noted author, Ms. O’Neil released her second book Basics of Texas Divorce Law in November 2010, with a second edition released in 2013, and a third edition expected in 2015.  Her first book, All About Texas Law and Kids, was published in September 2009 by Texas Lawyer Press. In 2012, Ms. O’Neil co-authored the booklets What You Need To Know About Common Law Marriage In Texas and Social Study Evaluations.  The State Bar of Texas and other providers of continuing education for attorneys frequently enlist Ms. O’Neil to provide instruction to attorneys on topics of her expertise in the family law arena.