Same-sex marriage judge draws all three ‘religious freedom’ lawsuits

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The federal judge who struck down Mississippi’s ban on gay marriage last year is now overseeing all three suits challenging the state’s controversial “religious freedom” law.

Attorney Oliver Diaz (left), executive director of the ACLU Mississippi Jennifer Riley-Collins, and plaintiffs Nykolas Alford and Stephen Thomas announcing a lawsuit against the state of Mississippi on the constitutionality of HB1523.

Gabriel Austin, Mississippi Today.

Attorney Oliver Diaz (left), executive director of the ACLU Mississippi Jennifer Riley-Collins, and plaintiffs Nykolas Alford and Stephen Thomas announcing a lawsuit against the state of Mississippi on the constitutionality of HB1523.

On Friday, the federal court reassigned lawsuits from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mississippi Center for Justice to Judge Carlton Reeves. Reeves was already overseeing a lawsuit from the Campaign for Southern Equality, which is challenging House Bill 1523 by filing a motion to reopen the gay marriage case Reeves ruled on last year.

Although Reeves’s passionate ruling overturning the gay marriage ban earned him national headlines and a reputation as a champion for gay rights, the decision to assign all three lawsuits to him was most likely administrative, according to several attorneys familiar with the lawsuits.

“I hold the naïve belief that judges do their best to follow the law, given the facts in front of them, so I am unwilling to ascribe outcome from one federal judge to another,” said Matt Steffey, a constitutional law expert and Mississippi College of Law professor.

“It makes no sense to have three judges researching the same issue; that’s not a great use of judicial resources.”

Gov. Phil Bryant signed the “religious freedom” law last month. In it, the state singles out three religious beliefs as worthy of protection: that marriage is between one man and one woman; that people should not have sex outside such marriages; and that a person’s gender is set at birth. The law protects from litigation anyone who refuses services to gays, lesbians and transgender individuals because of these beliefs.

Although Reeves’s past ruling on the gay marriage case likely did not influence the court’s decision to send the remaining two cases to him, Steffi said that his experience with the case probably did.

“Transferring all the cases to a judge who is at least familiar with at least some of the issues involved ought to enhance the efficiency, so that judge may have a head start in understanding some of the applicable law and it may allow matters to proceed quickly and uniformly to the decision.”

The question of uniformity was key to reassigning the cases, according to Rob McDuff, co-counsel of the Mississippi Center for Justice lawsuit.  When multiple cases challenge the same law, they’re often transferred to the same judge, so decisions don’t contradict each other. Three different lawsuits in front of three different judges mean a chance for three different outcomes.

“All of the judges who drew these cases are good judges. I assume they all agreed because Reeves already had familiarity with the issue from having presided over the marriage case; it made sense for him to hear all of the 1523 challenges,” McDuff said.

Originally the ACLU’s lawsuit was with Judge Daniel Jordan, and the Mississippi Center for Justice suit was with Judge Tom Lee.

Also, the court traditionally sends similar cases to the judge overseeing the oldest case, according to McDuff. Although the ACLU filed its lawsuit one day before the Campaign for Southern Equality, its motion is based on the gay marriage suit filed in 2014.

Sending the lawsuits to the same judge can also speed up the timeline. Both the ACLU and the Mississippi Center for Justice are asking for an injunction to prevent the law from going into effect on July 1.

“I think the process is going to move fairly quickly now,” McDuff said. “I expect the judge to hold a hearing sometime this month, and I expect we’ll have a ruling by July 1.”