Appeals Court Raps Jason West

Albany panel finds West presumed judicial powers in solemnizing New Paltz weddings

Upholding a ruling by the Supreme Court in Ulster County, the appellate judges charged West with acting as if he were a judge or a legislator rather than a village mayor.

The court made clear that it made no finding about the constitutionality of the marriage law. Following the lead of the Oregon and California Supreme Courts in similar decisions issued in the past year, the court said that the only issue properly before it was whether village officials have the authority to exercise discretion about whom to marry in the face of contrary state statutes.

The controversy arose after West—inspired by the example of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who authorized the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses in San Francisco in February, 2004—declared the same month that he believed that same-sex couples were entitled to marry in New York. On February 27, West officiated at a marriage ceremony for 25 same-sex couples. Since the town clerk refused to issue marriage licenses, West drew up his own forms to use for the occasion, and solemnized the unions.

Robert Hebel, a member of the village Board of Trustees who disagreed with West’s actions, filed a lawsuit seeking a court order to West to stop performing the marriages. When such an order was issued, the village Board authorized other officials to perform the marriages, and Hebel went back to court with a second lawsuit with the same result. West, the other officials, and the village Board all appealed the ruling, and urged the appellate court to consider whether the marriage law is constitutional, arguing that they were merely upholding the state Constitution by allowing same-sex couples to marry.

The court refused to bite at that bait. The opinion by Justice John Lahtinen is sharp and to the point.

Lahtinen said that West’s conduct was “in contravention of a clear mandate of law.”

“There is no provision for a mayor to draft his or her own version of a marriage license and then issue that document to people seeking to be married, as West did here,” wrote Lahtinen. “Moreover, a mayor (or any other person permitted to solemnize marriages) is authorized to perform a marriage only where a marriage license has been issued to the couple appearing before him or her. The controlling statutes afford a mayor no discretion in determining whether a marriage license should be issued or in solemnizing a marriage in which no valid license has been issued and, indeed, the law is unequivocal that knowingly solemnizing a marriage where no proper license has been issued is an unlawful act.”

Lahtinen relied directly on the California Supreme Court’s decision in August 2004, ruling that Newsom had no authority to do what he had done in San Francisco. He pointed out that the California high court refused to consider the constitutionality of that state’s marriage law in the Newsom matter since, as in New York, other cases directly raising that issue were pending. The Oregon courts took the same view.

“Simply stated,” wrote Lahtinen, “in an effort to interject his beliefs about an area of constitutional law that is unsettled and has divided courts that have addressed similar cases, West overlooked that his actions implicated a core constitutional tenet; that is, the separation of power. Here, West robed himself with judicial powers and declared the marriage laws of this State unconstitutional… In so doing, he clearly exceeded his role as a village mayor.”

Lahtinen found West’s argument that he could take this action consistent with his oath of office to support the Constitution was “without merit.”

However, the court refused to rule on Hebel’s contention that all the same-sex marriages that were performed in New Paltz should be declared void.

“We do not deem it appropriate to address the merits of this issue since the same-sex couples were not parties and they sought, but were denied, permission to intervene” in this case.

Courts are generally reluctant to rule on the rights of persons who are not represented as parties in a lawsuit. But Lahtinen found that the resolution of pending marriage lawsuits “will control whether the marriages of these couples may become legally cognizable.”

Local press reports suggested that West will attempt to take this case to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals. He is represented by Joshua Rosenkranz, the same attorney scheduled to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court on December 6 in the case challenging the federal law that disqualifies colleges and universities from receiving federal funding if they fail to provide full access to their campuses for military recruiters.

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