A federal judge has ordered Kentucky taxpayers to pay more than $220,000 in attorneys' fees for an elected county clerk who caused a national uproar by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2016.
U.S. District Judge Jim Bunning says Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis was acting on behalf of the state government when she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-couples on the basis of her personal religious beliefs. He ordered the state to pay $222,695 in attorneys' fees and another $2,008.08 in costs. He said the county government and Davis herself are not liable.
"Davis represented the Commonwealth of Kentucky when she refused to issue marriage licenses to legally eligible couples. The buck stops there," Bunning wrote.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision effectively legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in the summer of 2015, setting off joyous celebrations among gay rights advocates nationwide. But just hours after the decision, Davis' announcement she would stop issuing marriage licenses transformed the tiny town of Morehead into the front lines of the culture war with angry demonstrations from both sides captured on national television.
The case reached its zenith after a judge sent Davis to jail for refusing his order to issue the licenses. When she was freed five days later, two Republican presidential candidates were there to greet her along with thousands of supporters, including a church choir.
Davis' office issued modified marriage licenses that did not include her name. In the spring of 2016, Kentucky's new Republican governor signed a law removing the names of county clerks from marriage license forms. Davis said that satisfied her concerns.
William Sharp, legal director for the ACLU of Kentucky, said he was pleased with the ruling and hopes it serves as a reminder to Kentucky officials that "willful violations of individuals' civil liberties ... will not only be challenged but will also prove costly."
"It is unfortunate that Kentucky taxpayers will likely bear the financial burden of the unlawful actions and litigation strategies of an elected official, but those same voters are free to take that information into account at the ballot box," Sharp said.
The judge ruled that the couples were the "prevailing party," meaning Davis officially lost the lawsuit. Mat Staver, Davis' attorney, said he will appeal that. If he succeeds, it could mean the state would not have to pay because only "prevailing parties" are entitled to legal fees.
While Davis is a county official, she is elected by the voters. Rowan County Attorney Cecil Watkins said the county should not have to pay those fees.
"My job was to protect the county taxpayer money. I did that," he said.
Emails to representatives of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear were not immediately returned.