GEORGE GRANT ET AL.
ELAINE ANDERSON, CLERK OF WILLIAMSON COUNTY ET AL.
Session March 8, 2017
from the Chancery Court for Williamson County No. 44859
Joseph Woodruff, Chancellor
filed suit seeking declaratory relief to determine the
continuing validity of laws relating to the issuance of
marriage licenses and to determine whether the issuance of
marriage licenses violates the state constitution. Plaintiffs
also asked the trial court to enjoin the issuance of all
marriage licenses in Williamson County, Tennessee. Upon the
county clerk's motion to dismiss, the trial court
concluded, among other things, that the plaintiffs lacked
standing. We affirm the dismissal of the complaint.
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery
Court Affirmed as Modified and Case Remanded
E. Fowler, Franklin, Tennessee, for the appellants, George
Grant, Lyndon Allen, Tim McCorkle, Larry Tomczak, and Deborah
M. Carson and Lee Ann Thompson, Franklin, Tennessee, for the
appellee, Elaine Anderson, Clerk of Williamson County,
Neal McBrayer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in
which Richard H. Dinkins and Arnold B. Goldin, JJ., joined.
NEAL MCBRAYER, JUDGE
January 21, 2016, plaintiffs George Grant, Larry Tomczak,
Lyndon Allen, Tim McCorkle, and Deborah Deaver filed a
complaint for declaratory judgment in the Chancery Court for
Williamson County. Two months later, the plaintiffs amended
their complaint. The amended complaint for declaratory
judgment identified plaintiffs Grant and Allen as
"ministers . . . having the care of souls" and, as
such, authorized by state law to "solemnize the rite of
matrimony." See Tenn. Code Ann. §
36-3-301(a)(1) (2017). The complaint identified plaintiffs
Tomczak, McCorkle, and Deaver as "residents and
taxpayers of Williamson County, Tennessee . . . [who were]
registered to vote in Tennessee, " although Mr. Tomczak
was also described as a minister.
introductory paragraph, the plaintiffs concisely stated the
declaratory relief requested. The plaintiffs sought "a
declaration that those provisions of the Tennessee law
relative to the licensing of marriages are no longer valid
and enforceable" since the United States Supreme
Court's decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135
S.Ct. 2584 (2015). The plaintiffs also sought a declaration
that "the continued issuance of marriage licenses"
following the Obergefell decision violates their
rights under the Tennessee Constitution. The complaint named
as defendants Elaine Anderson, County Clerk for Williamson
County, and Attorney General and Reporter Herbert H. Slatery
the issues raised by the plaintiffs' case requires an
appreciation of the issues in Obergefell and the
Tennessee case underlying that decision. Obergefell
decided cases arising from four states that "define[d]
marriage as a union between one man and one woman."
Id. at 2593. The Court considered two issues. First,
"whether the Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to
license a marriage between two people of the same sex."
Id. And second, "whether the Fourteenth
Amendment requires a State to recognize a same-sex marriage
licensed and performed in a State which does grant that
Tennessee case, Tanco v. Haslam, raised the latter
of the two issues. Id. In Tanco, same-sex
couples who lived and were legally married in other states
before moving to Tennessee challenged the constitutionality
of article XI, section 18, of the Tennessee
Constitution and Tennessee Code Annotated §
36-3-113. 7 F.Supp.3d 759, 762 (M.D. Tenn.),
rev'd sub nom. DeBoer v. Snyder, 772 F.3d 388
(6th Cir. 2014), rev'd sub nom. Obergefell, 135
S.Ct. 2584. Both the constitutional provision and the statute
declared the public policy of this State to be the legal
recognition of a marital contract between one man and one
woman only and that any other forms of marriage were
"void and unenforceable" in the State. Tenn. Const.
art. XI, § 18; Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-3-113 (2017).
Obergefell, the Supreme Court concluded "that
the right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the
liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal
Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the
same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that
liberty." Obergefell, 135 S.Ct. at 2604. So the
Court held that "the State laws challenged . . . in
these cases are now . . . invalid to the extent they exclude
same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms and
conditions as opposite-sex couples." Id. at
2605. The Court further held "that there is no lawful
basis for a State to refuse to recognize a lawful same-sex
marriage performed in another State on the ground of its
same-sex character." Id. at 2608.
the plaintiffs seek a declaration that, because of the
holdings in Obergefell, Tennessee Code Annotated
§ 36-3-103(a) and (c)(1) and § 36-3-104 are invalid
and unenforceable. Section 36-3-103(a) requires parties
desiring to marry to first present to the minister or officer
who will solemnize the marriage "a license under the
hand of a county clerk in this state, directed to such
minister or officer, authorizing the solemnization of a
marriage between the parties." Tenn. Code Ann. §
36-3-103(a) (2017). Subsection (c)(1) of that same section
authorizes and directs the county clerk to take certain
actions following the marriage and receipt of the license
executed by the officiant:
The county clerk issuing a marriage license is hereby
authorized to record and certify any license used to
solemnize a marriage that is properly signed by the officiant
when such license is returned to the issuing county clerk.
The issuing county clerk shall forward the record to the
office of vital records to be filed and registered with such
office. If a license issued by a county clerk in Tennessee is
used to solemnize a marriage outside Tennessee, such marriage
and parties, their property and their children shall have the
same status as if the marriage were solemnized in this state.
A county clerk is prohibited from issuing a license for a
marriage that is prohibited in this state.
Id. § 36-3-103(c)(1). Section 36-3-104 details
the requirements for a marriage license application. Among
other things, the application must state "the names,
ages, addresses and social security numbers of both the
proposed male and female contracting parties."
Id. § 36-3-104(a)(1) (2017). The section also
prohibits a county clerk or deputy clerk from issuing a
marriage license until a written application containing all
the required information is submitted. Id.
also claim that, post-Obergefell, certain criminal
penalties no longer apply. Specifically, plaintiffs point to
the penalties that result from an officiant's failure to
return a marriage license to the county clerk or from an
officiant solemnizing a marriage between parties not capable
of marriage. See id. §§ 36-3-303, -305
acknowledge that neither Tennessee Code Annotated §
36-3-103 nor § 36-3-104 were at issue in Tanco.
And plaintiffs further acknowledge "that
Obergefell never purported to 'interpret'
the [Tennessee] license laws." Still, plaintiffs argue
that the holdings in Obergefell serve to either
invalidate Tennessee's marriage licensing laws or create
an uncertainty, namely "how the right of same-sex
couples to marry . . . is to be effectuated."
response to the amended complaint for declaratory judgment,
the court clerk, defendant Anderson, moved to dismiss the
complaint. As grounds, she cited Rule 12.02(1) and (6) of the
Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure, "lack of
jurisdiction over the subject matter" and "failure
to state a claim upon which relief can be granted."
See Tenn. R. Civ. P. 12.02. Although she raised the
issue of the court's subject matter jurisdiction, her
motion instead focused on justiciability. According to Ms.
Anderson, plaintiffs "failed to present a justiciable
case or controversy for the following reasons: (1) Plaintiffs
cannot establish standing . . .; (2) Minister Plaintiffs'
claims are not ripe for adjudication; and (3) [she] d[id] not
have a real and adverse interest sufficient to establish a
chancery court dismissed the action. The court first held
that the plaintiffs lacked standing, concluding that they
failed to "aver a special interest or a special injury
not common to the public generally." In reaching its
conclusion, the court examined the claims of the plaintiffs
not only as a whole but also by category, independently
analyzing the allegations of the "Minister
Plaintiffs" and the "Citizen Plaintiffs."
independent basis for dismissal of the claims of the Minister
Plaintiffs, the court also determined the ministers'
claims were not ripe. In its view, the Minister Plaintiffs
were "not faced with a choice of immediately complying
with a burdensome law or risking serious criminal and civil
penalties." And the court saw "no need for
immediate compliance or immediate action of any sort since
Minister Plaintiffs [we]re not being compelled to solemnize
any upcoming marriages, and may never be asked to solemnize a
state-issued license again."
court also agreed with Ms. Anderson's contention that she
did not have an adverse interest to the plaintiffs. Although
state law prohibits county clerks "from issuing a
marriage license for a marriage that is prohibited [by the
laws of the state], " the penalty for violation applies
only if the violation was "not in good faith."
Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 36-3-103(c)(1), -111 (2017). As
noted by the court, in their response to the motion to
dismiss, plaintiffs acknowledged that Ms. Anderson was
issuing licenses to same-sex couples on the good faith
assumption that Obergefell both authorized and
required the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex
although the Attorney General did not file a motion to
dismiss, the court determined that dismissal of the entire
action was appropriate. The court reasoned that
"Tennessee's Constitution restricts the cases a
court may entertain to those in which the parties have
standing, [and] therefore, without standing, a court has no
subject matter jurisdiction." From that premise and
noting its holding that the plaintiffs lacked standing, the
court concluded it "[wa]s required to dismiss this
action against both the Attorney General as well as Ms.
Anderson because this Court does not have subject matter
initial matter, we must determine whether the chancery court
had subject matter jurisdiction over the plaintiffs'
claims. See Redwing v. Catholic Bishop for Diocese of
Memphis, 363 S.W.3d 436, 445 (Tenn. 2012) (noting that
subject matter jurisdiction "should be viewed as a
threshold inquiry"). Subject matter jurisdiction refers
to a court's "lawful authority to adjudicate a
controversy brought before it." Northland Ins. Co.
v. State, 33 S.W.3d 727, 729 (Tenn. 2000). A court's
subject matter jurisdiction is derived-"either
explicitly or by necessary implication"-from the state
constitution or statute. Benson v. Herbst, 240
S.W.3d 235, 239 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2007). Neither the conduct of
the parties nor any agreement of the parties plays a role;
"parties cannot confer ...