Texas Judge Who Refused to Marry Same-Sex Couples Sues Judicial Conduct Commission

Texas Judge Who Refused to Marry Same-Sex Couples Sues Judicial Conduct Commission

two wedding bands decorated with rainbows Photo: Gutzemberg/Shutterstock.com

In a lawsuit by a judge who doesn’t want to face discipline for opposing same-sex marriage, the judge and Texas Commission for Judicial Conduct are squabbling over whether a federal court in Fort Worth or Austin should hear the dispute.

Jack County Justice of the Peace Brian Keith Umphress, who stated in his lawsuit that he’s been marrying heterosexual couples and refusing weddings to same-sex couples because of his religion, had filed his lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Fort Worth.

The judge argued the lawsuit should be heard there because he’s officiated 12 opposite-sex weddings in Jack County since 2019. It said he’s afraid of facing a sanction because the judicial conduct commission has issued a public warning against another judge, Dianne Hensley, for turning away same-sex couples.

But in a court document filed Wednesday, the judicial conduct commission argued that the court should either dismiss the case or transfer it to the Austin division of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. Their argument is that the commission and all 12 of its commissioners—all are defendants—were meeting in Austin when they debated the Hensley case and voted to sanction that judge.

“Plaintiff’s theory would allow any judge in Texas to sue these defendant commissioners in any division of any district within the state, and to do so based upon the plaintiff judge’s residence, where he or she perceived impact from the defendants’ conduct,” the court document said.

John McKetta, partner in Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody in Austin, who represents the commission, declined to comment. So did one of Umphress’s attorneys, Dustin Fillmore of The Fillmore Law Firm in Fort Worth.

Separately, Hensley, a justice of the peace in McLennan County, has also sued the commission and its commissioners over her sanction. She turned away same-sex couples seeking a wedding officiant because of her Christian religious beliefs, and alleged in her suit that the defendants were violating her religious freedom under Texas law by sanctioning her.

The sanction found Hensley it violated a judicial ethics rule, Canon 4A(1) of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct, that requires a judge to conduct her extrajudicial activities in a way that does not cast doubt on the judge’s ability to be impartial as a judge.


Read more: Experts Question Judge’s Choice to Sue Over Sanction, Rather Than Appeal


Umphress’s lawsuit takes issue with the way the commission has interpreted Canon 4A(1).

He “is engaged in numerous extra-judicial activities that evince disapproval of homosexual behavior, same-sex marriage, and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell, and all of these activities are exposing him to discipline under the commission’s current interpretation,” the complaint said.

Aside from doing heterosexual ceremonies and not same-sex ones, the judge is part of a church that teaches that “homosexual conduct of any sort is immoral” and violates scripture, the complaint said. Umphress argued that being a member of his church would qualify as extrajudicial activities that show disapproval of same-sex marriage and therefore violate the judicial canon.

When he’s up for reelection in 2022, the complaint said Umphress would campaign as a same-sex marriage opponent. He thinks that would also subject him to discipline.

Among other things, he wants the court to issue a declaratory judgment that the First Amendment protects his right to go to his church that disapproves of homosexuality, keep up his practice of refusing to officiate same-sex weddings and speak out about same-sex marriage during his campaign.

Umphress also wants a permanent injunction that would stop the judicial conduct commission from investigating or disciplining judges based on disapproval of same-sex marriage or homosexual conduct. He wants the court to find that his religious rights would stop such a sanction.

Published at Wed, 17 Jun 2020 14:59:00 +0000

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