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Grant v. Anderson

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

May 22, 2018


          Session March 8, 2017

          Appeal from the Chancery Court for Williamson County No. 44859 Joseph Woodruff, Chancellor

         Plaintiffs 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.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed as Modified and Case Remanded

          David E. Fowler, Franklin, Tennessee, for the appellants, George Grant, Lyndon Allen, Tim McCorkle, Larry Tomczak, and Deborah Deaver.

          Lisa M. Carson and Lee Ann Thompson, Franklin, Tennessee, for the appellee, Elaine Anderson, Clerk of Williamson County, Tennessee.

          W. Neal McBrayer, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Richard H. Dinkins and Arnold B. Goldin, JJ., joined.




         On 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.

         In an 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plaintiffs sought "a declaration that those provisions of the Tennessee law relative to the licensing of marriages are no longer valid and enforceable" since the United States Supreme Court's decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S.Ct. 2584 (2015).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 III.

         Understanding 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 right." Id.

         The 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[1] and Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-3-113.[2] 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).

         In 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.

         Here, 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.

         Plaintiffs 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 (2017).

         Plaintiffs 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."

         In 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 legal controversy."


         The 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."

         As an 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."

         The 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 couples.

         Finally, 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 jurisdiction."


         As an 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 ...

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