Same-sex ethics

As the legal question of same-sex marriage is being decided across the country, the question whether a judge may ethically decline to perform such marriages is beginning to be addressed.

Noting that same-sex marriages are now permitted and recognized in the state as a result of several federal court decisions, the general counsel for the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts advised in a memo last week that a magistrate who conducts other marriages may not — regardless of the reason — refuse to perform the ceremony for a same-sex couple for whom a marriage license has been issued by the register of deeds.  Emphasizing that “performing marriage ceremonies is a ministerial act authorized as an official ‘additional power’ of magistrates,” the memo concludes that, if a valid marriage license is presented, a magistrate has the statutory duty “to conduct the marriage between the persons named in the license in the same manner as the magistrate would conduct any other marriage.” The memo states that a failure to do so would violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution and the oath the magistrate swore upon taking office to uphold the constitution and laws of the U.S. and would constitute a failure to perform a duty of the office. The memo cites Canon 2A of the North Carolina code of judicial conduct (“a judge should respect and comply with the law and should conduct himself/herself at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary”) and Canon 3 (“a judge should perform the duties of the judge’s office impartially and diligently”).

Citing the corresponding provisions in its state code, the Washington State Commission on Judicial Conduct admonished a judge for, after same-sex marriage was approved by voters, publicly stating that he would not perform same-sex marriages but continuing to perform opposite-sex marriages. The judge accepted “the Commission’s determination that, by announcing he would not solemnize same-sex marriage due to his philosophical and religious concerns while continuing to solemnize opposite-sex marriages, he appeared to express a discriminatory intent against a statutorily protected class of people thereby undermining public confidence in his impartiality . . . .” The Commission stated:

Respondent is not required as a judicial officer to solemnize marriages. Having chosen to make himself available to solemnize some weddings, however, he is bound by the Code of Judicial Conduct to do so in a way that does not discriminate or appear to discriminate against a statutorily protected class of people.

The Code of Judicial Conduct imposes on judicial officers a specific, enforceable obligation to avoid bias and the appearance of bias. These obligations go beyond those imposed on others who serve the general public, reflecting the unique and integral role judicial officers play in our constitutional scheme of justice honoring the rule of law. Judges must not only be impartial, but must also be perceived as impartial, in order to properly fulfill that role . . . .

By even temporarily acting in a discriminatory fashion toward gay men and lesbians, in stating that he would not solemnize their marriages when he continued to solemnize heterosexual marriages, and by commenting on that decision publicly, a reasonable person could objectively conclude that he might act in a discriminatory fashion toward gay or lesbian litigants, lawyers, or witnesses.

In contrast, the New York Advisory Committee on Judicial Ethics ducked the issue by stating whether a judge may adopt a policy that distinguishes between same-sex and opposite-sex couples was primarily a legal question, not a question of ethics.

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