Tag Archives: county clerks

About those elected offices …


Let’s take an earlier blog post briefly to the next level.

I questioned why we elect certain officials in Texas on partisan ballots, why we choose between Democrats and Republicans.

Here’s the blog.

A friend poses an excellent question: Why must we elect some of these officials at all?

He makes the excellent point that tax assessor-collectors, district clerks, county clerks and treasurers — all countywide elected offices — don’t set policy. They follow policy set by state legislators and, to a lesser degree, by county commissioners. They are “functionaries,” he says.

I guess I harken back to an earlier point: Texans love to elect people to public office. It’s in our political DNA, I reckon. Perhaps we like to hold them accountable to us exclusively; we don’t want some intermediary standing between these individuals and the people who elect them.

But my friend’s point remains well-taken.

Then again, that would call for an even more drastic leap of faith were we to recommend such a drastic change to our antiquated Texas Constitution.

I’m willing to take it.


Feds trump states on gay marriage


The issue over whether a county clerk in a particular state has the authority to deny marriage licenses to gay couples brings up the time-honored debate over states’ rights.

Rowan County (Ky.) Clerk Kim Davis stopped issuing marriage licenses because she opposes — on religious grounds — sanctioning same-sex marriages.

A federal judge found her in contempt of court and threw her into a jail. Davis is appealing her incarceration to the Kentucky governor.

Does the state have the right to deny a marriage license to a gay couple? Here’s my view on it.

The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law to all citizens. The U.S. Constitution is the governing framework for the federal government. The Constitution, therefore, is the pre-eminent law of the land.

The U.S. Supreme Court this year ruled, thus, that same-sex marriage is a protected right under the Constitution. Therefore, states must follow the law as prescribed in that document.

So, when someone takes an oath to “uphold the Constitution,” he or she is bound by that oath to perform the duties of his or her office.

The federal law, in this instance, trumps state law.


A county clerk divides the Republican Party

TAMPA, FL - AUGUST 28: Ohio Gov. John Kasich speaks during the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 28, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. Today is the first full session of the RNC after the start was delayed due to Tropical Storm Isaac. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

On one side of this debate over a county clerk’s refusal to issue marriage licenses to gay couples is a former Republican southern governor, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who says the dispute proves that government is trying to “criminalize Christianity.”

On the other side is a sitting governor, Republican John Kasich of Ohio, who says the county clerk must follow the law, which requires her to issue the licenses to those who ask for them, regardless of their sexual orientation. Both men are running for president of the United States.

I’ll stand with Gov. Kasich.

Kasich: Follow the law

Rowan County (Ky.) Clerk Kim Davis is in a federal lockup for refusing to do her job. Kasich doesn’t like that she’s in jail. Frankly, I don’t like it, either. I just wish Davis would resign her public office on the grounds that she cannot perform the duties required of her. If she wants to stand behind her Christian belief, that’s fine with me … and she’s totally within her rights as a U.S. citizen to do so.

As for Huckabee and his overheated response to the Davis brouhaha, well, no one is “criminalizing” anyone for their beliefs. He should know better than to mutter such demagoguery.

All public officials swear to uphold the law, which states that gay people are entitled to get married. They need a license to do so. That means county clerks are required to issue them.

If you can’t do the job  because of your religious beliefs, then quit.

There will be no criminal charges filed, Ms. Davis. Honest.


Kim Davis proves the Founders got it right


Here’s the latest social media missive from former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

“This morning, on ABC’s ‘This Week,’ Mike Huckabee said Kim Davis’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples is equivalent to Abraham Lincoln’s refusal to accept slavery, which was the law of the land when Lincoln became president. ‘You obey it if it’s right,’ Huckabee said, arguing that Davis shouldn’t be jailed. ‘Should Lincoln have been put in jail? Because he ignored the law?’

“So if Kim Davis who opposes gay marriage can refuse to issue a perfectly legal marriage license, a Quaker clerk who’s a pacifist can refuse to issue gun licenses, a clerk who’s a committed environmentalist can refuse to issue building permits, and a clerk who believes in a $15 minimum wage can refuse to issue Walmart a permit to build a new store. What planet does Huckabee live on?

“Here’s a man who was governor of Arkansas and wants to be president of the United States, and he compared Kim Davis to Abraham Lincoln? Sometimes I’m flabbergasted.”

Me, too, Mr. Secretary.

I’ll just add that the Kim Davis gay marriage license debate has demonstrated precisely why the Founding Fathers got it exactly right when they wrote a secular document — the U.S. Constitution — that would become the framework for the federal government.


Most county clerks are going to follow the law

Well, it turns out Texas’s county courthouses aren’t occupied by defiant rebels intent on ignoring state and federal law.

According to the Texas Tribune, most county clerks — and I presume that to mean more than 127 of them — are going to comply with a Supreme Court ruling that legalizes gay marriage across the nation.


Those who don’t will face lawsuits from couples seeking marriage licenses.

I was intrigued by the story that included statements from way up yonder, in tiny Roberts County, that officials there will issue licenses to same-sex couples when they apply for them.

Randall and Potter clerks said from the outset of the ruling that they would issue the licenses, even though Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton decreed it was all right with him if counties declined to do so.

The Tribune reports: “Hartley County Clerk Melissa Mead said her office won’t issue same-sex marriage licenses until the clock runs out on the 25 days that parties in the Supreme Court case have to ask for a rehearing of the case.”

A handful of the state’s 254 counties are bucking the highest court in the land — not to mention ignoring the oath that county clerks take that require them to uphold federal law.

A handful of clerks in other states have declined to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — and have resigned their public offices in protest. I’m OK with those who quit rather than flout their oath. Those who resign are far more principled, in my view, than those who simply refuse to do their duty based on religious principles. Their oaths don’t allow for that, as I read the oath they all must take.

A friend posted this portion of a New York Times editorial on the subject:

“Some same-sex marriage opponents argue that under state religious-freedom laws, a government employee’s beliefs should be accommodated so long as another official is available to carry out the task. But government employees do not have a constitutionally protected right to pick and choose which members of the public they will serve, no matter their religious beliefs. Not so long ago, of course, government officials invoked religious beliefs to justify all manner of racial segregation and discrimination, including laws banning interracial marriage. The Supreme Court struck down that marriage ban in 1967 in Loving v. Virginia. It is impossible to imagine any county clerk or judge now claiming a right not to marry an interracial couple based on religious beliefs. And yet, that would be analogous to what these public employees are doing in refusing to serve same-sex couples. The Constitution’s protection of religious freedom simply does not include the right to discriminate against others in the public sphere.”

As I see it, there you have it.

County clerk stands on principle … and quits

Dana Guffey is a principled public servant.

Do I agree with a particular principle that caused her to quit her job as a county clerk in Arkansas? No — but that’s not the point of this post.

My point is that Guffey quit her public service job because she opposes the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalizes gay marriage across the land.

She should be applauded for her principled decision, which has far more integrity than the idea promoted by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who said it is just fine with him if county clerks declined to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Paxton’s view has been endorsed by Texas Republican officeholders.

These county clerks can stay on the job. They just don’t have to fulfill their oath.


To their credit, Potter and Randall counties’ clerks — Republicans Julie Smith and Renee Calhoun, respectively — have said they will issue licenses to same-sex couples when the opportunities present themselves. They’ve chosen to fulfill their oath, which means they vow to uphold national and state laws.

Meanwhile, Cleburne County, Ark., Clerk Dana Guffey has chosen to quit rather than do something with which she disagrees.

The Roosevelt County, N.M., clerk quit her job as well when New Mexico legalized gay marriage in 2013. I had no problem with her resignation, either. It, too, became a matter of principle.

No one says a public official must continue to hold a job if they disagree with fulfilling any of its required duties. The highest court in America has determined that since gay marriage is now legal, that it is constitutional — as opposed to state laws prohibiting it. Thus, issuing marriage licenses to gay couples becomes part of the job description.

If you cannot do the job, you quit.

That is what Dana Guffey did.

Judge will marry gays, if duty calls

Potter County Judge Nancy Tanner is on record already on an issue that well could generate a good bit of controversy.

Back when she was running for the office to which she was elected, Tanner — along with her four Republican primary opponents — took part in a candidate forum sponsored by Panhandle PBS. I was privileged to be one of the journalists questioning the candidates.

One of the panelists asked all the candidates a most probing question: Given that Texas law gives county judges the authority to perform marriage ceremonies, would you — as county judge — be willing to perform a ceremony uniting a same-sex couple in matrimony?

Some of the candidates hemmed and hawed. One of them said “no,” he wouldn’t do it.

Tanner’s response? She was unequivocal. If the courts rule that gay marriage is legal in Texas, then she would follow the law. She would marry anyone with a valid marriage license. That would be her responsibility as county judge and she would perform it.

Her answer was straightforward as it could have been. It didn’t harm her at the polls, as she won the GOP primary outright and went on to be elected county judge in November 2014.

As of this morning, the issue hasn’t yet presented itself to Judge Tanner. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has said county clerks can refuse to issue marriage licenses if they have a religious objection to the Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized gay marriage.

There’s been no word that I’ve heard about whether Potter County Clerk Julie Smith is going to follow the law or ignore it, per Paxton’s decision.

Tanner’s take on the issue is clear. What’s cloudy and muddled is whether another countywide elected official, Smith, is going to follow the law.

Stay tuned. This could get dicey.

It’s official: Texas AG says clerks can flout the law

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has just told county clerks they don’t have to uphold the sacred oath to which they swore when they took office.

I don’t know where to begin.


Paxton issued a statement today that said county clerks do not have to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples if they have religious objections. He has challenged the legal opinion of a majority of the nine men and women who sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 this past week that gay marriage is now legal in the United States of America.

Texas county clerks, according to Paxton, are now free to flout federal law.

“Our religious liberties find protection in state and federal constitutions and statutes,” Paxton said in a statement. “While they are indisputably our first freedom, we should not let them be our last.”

Yes, they do “find protection” in the law. But there’s another factor that Paxton and others who oppose the court ruling are giving short shrift. It is that county clerks — as well as state attorneys general, I should add — take an oath to follow federal and state law. They swear to God that they’ll do that.

Is that oath now rendered moot? Why bother, then, to swear to uphold the Constitution?


How about changing the oath of office?

IN THE NAME AND BY THE AUTHORITY OF THE STATE OF TEXAS, I, John Q. Public Servant, do solemnly swear (or affirm), that I will faithfully execute the duties of the office of county clerk of the State of Texas, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this State, so help me God.

That, right there, is the oath of office county clerks must take before they can perform their duties on behalf of the people they serve in their respective counties.

In Texas, all 254 counties are governed by state statute, which means the state sets the laws by which county residents — and their elected officials — must abide.

I found it on the Texas Secretary of State’s website. It’s kind of a generic oath that county officials must take. Granted, some county officials take longer oaths, but it must include this particular pledge.

Just as an aside, I attended the swearing in on Jan. 1 of newly elected Potter County Judge Nancy Tanner and the oath she took was tantamount to the “War and Peace” version of the mandatory oath given to county officials.

I mention this oath in light of what Republican presidential candidate — and Texas’s junior U.S. senator — Ted Cruz said about how county clerks “absolutely” should be given the right to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Texas. He said the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage amounts to a declaration of war on religious liberty.

As I look at this oath, I don’t see any reference to the faith of the person taking it. I see nothing in there that enables the elected official to not follow all “the laws of the United States and of this State.”

I read the oath as requiring that those who take it must adhere to it — to the letter.

A majority of the justices on the Supreme Court has declared that gay marriage is now legal everywhere, in each of the 50 states. That includes Texas.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, another GOP presidential candidate, said that we could save a ton of money if we just got rid of the court. I don’t know how serious he was about that suggestion.

Sen. Cruz, though, seems to be dead serious in encouraging county clerks to violate their sacred oath, which does end with “so help me God.”

Hey, let’s just change the oath and have county clerks affirm that they’ll uphold only those laws that do not trample on their religious beliefs.