La. Gay Marriage Suit Falters by Naming Wrong Defendant

By Brett Snider, Esq. on December 03, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A Louisiana federal court dismissed a case challenging the state's ban on gay marriage on Wednesday, largely because the plaintiff named the wrong state official as the defendant.

The suit was originally filed on behalf of Jon Robicheaux and Derek Pinton, a gay couple who was legally married in Iowa and sought the recognition of their home state. The Washington Blade reports that another same-sex couple joined the suit later as plaintiffs, and both were denied by the court's recent decision.

How was the case swept aside on procedural grounds?

Sovereign Immunity for La. Attorney General

Like many marriage equality suits before it -- see the recent decision in New Jersey -- plaintiffs in Robicheaux v. Caldwell named the state's attorney general as the defendant.

However, the Robicheaux court was not convinced that the plaintiffs could overcome Attorney General James D. Caldwell's sovereign immunity as an official state actor -- which is typically sidestepped by the unconstitutional law enforcement exception in Ex parte Young.

Since the burden of proof in overcoming a motion for lack of jurisdiction lies with the gay couples in this case, they attempted to argue before the court that Caldwell was connected to the enforcement of the allegedly unconstitutional same-sex marriage ban.

The Fifth Circuit has denied that the Ex parte Young exception applies generally to state actors merely by virtue of their office (e.g., attorney general) and that there must be some material connection between the state officer and the alleged violation of constitutional rights.

The fatal blow for the plaintiffs was that there was no material showing of Caldwell's enforcement of the marriage ban -- and no official attempt by plaintiffs to seek recognition of their marriage by the state -- there is an insufficient nexus between the defendant and the enforcement of the alleged unconstitutional law.

If at First You Don't Succeed ...

After being denied by the court on Wednesday, counsel for the plaintiffs petitioned the court to give the parties leave to amend the complaint to name a different state officer -- rather than just let the case be dismissed and then refiled.

A spokesman for the plaintiffs confirmed that if moving to amend the complaint fails, the plaintiffs will appeal to the Fifth Circuit, reports the Washington Blade.

The couples may have done well to have modeled their suit after a corresponding Texas federal challenge to the state's same-sex marriage ban. In that case, the plaintiffs named the governor, the attorney general, and other key state officials who were charged with issuing or denying marriage licenses.

The Louisiana federal district court is set to hear arguments on the motion to amend the complaint in mid-January.

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