A federal judge on Friday ordered Kentucky to pay more than $224,000 in legal fees and costs because one of its county clerks had refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The order, handed down by Judge David L. Bunning of United States District Court, moved the protracted case one step closer to conclusion, about two years after the Rowan County Clerk, Kim Davis, defied a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2015 and decided not to issue the marriage licenses.
Ms. Davis’s actions, which came at a watershed moment for gay rights advocates, reverberated across the country and led to lawsuits, the passage of a new Kentucky state law and resulted in Ms. Davis being briefly sent to jail for contempt of court.
By Friday, Judge Bunning noted in his 50-page order, the case had finally “boiled down to a single remaining issue: attorney’s fees.”
The fees became an issue after the Kentucky General Assembly passed a law in the spring of 2016 that removed county clerks’ names from marriage license forms. The law rendered appeals connected to the case moot.
But the plaintiffs in the case filed a motion for lawyers’ fees shortly thereafter; a magistrate judge later recommended that the court deny the plaintiffs’ motion for such fees.
But in his order, Judge Bunning rejected the magistrate’s recommendations, finding instead that the couples who had sued Ms. Davis had “prevailed” in the case, which entitled them to lawyers’ fees. He also found that the Commonwealth of Kentucky — not Ms. Davis or Rowan County — must pay them.
“In this case, the plaintiffs ‘prevailed by every measure of victory,’” Judge Bunning wrote. “Plaintiffs obtained marriage licenses that could not be revoked. And two of the plaintiff-couples married on those licenses. That is enduring relief.”
“Davis represented the Commonwealth of Kentucky when she refused to issue marriage licenses to legally eligible couples,” Judge Bunning continued. “The buck stops there.”
On Friday, William Sharp, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said in a statement that he hoped the ruling would serve “as a reminder to Kentucky officials that willful violations of individuals’ civil liberties, such as what occurred here, will not only be challenged but will also prove costly.”
In a statement Mat Staver, a lawyer for Ms. Davis, said his team was “pleased” that his client — and for that matter, the county — was not liable for the fees, but maintained that “the part of the ruling that finds the plaintiffs were prevailing parties is contrary to the law.” He said he would appeal that aspect of the judge’s ruling.
“The magistrate correctly found that the plaintiffs were not the prevailing parties,” Mr. Staver said. “Without prevailing party status, there can be no attorney’s fees.”
In an email to The New York Times, Woody Maglinger, the press secretary for Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky, said, “The state’s outside counsel in the case are reviewing the opinion, and no determination has been made regarding an appeal.”
Ms. Davis became a national symbol of conservative resistance to the Supreme Court’s June 2015 ruling, which declared that same-sex couples must be allowed to marry. Citing her Christian beliefs, Ms. Davis refused to put her signature on any marriage licenses; a federal judge then ordered her to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling, and when she still refused, the judge found her in contempt and jailed her for five days in September 2015.
She was set free after her deputy clerks began issuing licenses and was ordered by Judge Bunning not to interfere.
In his statement, Mr. Sharp of the A.C.L.U. of Kentucky said: “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.”