Now that marriage equality is officially on the books in the United States, the bills racked up by state officials who decided to listen to the Religious Right in defense of a lost cause are coming due. One of those debts is apparently pretty large, as a federal judge just ordered South Carolina to pay $135,000 in fees.
The Associated Press (AP) reported that the office of South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson is on the hook for 90 percent of the fees requested by attorneys for Colleen Condon and Nichols Bleckley, a same-sex couple that was denied a marriage license last year. Those seven lawyers said they put in 390 hours of work on the case, at a rate of $175-$400 per hour per person.
In previous arguments, Wilson said the fees were excessive and, if imposed, would represent a severe punishment for a state office that was simply doing its job.
But U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel had little sympathy for Wilson, noting that at the time of the case filing, South Carolina was the only state under the jurisdiction of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that continued to enforce a ban on marriage equality after Virginia’s marriage prohibition was struck down by that same court. (Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina are covered by the 4th Circuit.)
Gergel also said the large number of hours put in by attorneys on this case was partly Wilson’s own fault, since his office fought hard against marriage equality – resulting in a lot of work for his opponents. In his decision, Gergel said the hours logged by Condon and Bleckley’s team were reasonable and even essential, according to the AP.
Wilson’s office said it will review the ruling and respond within the required 28 days.
This decision is the latest blow to a state attorney general dealing with marriage equality fallout. Last week, we reported on this blog that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton faced contempt of court charges for his failure to cooperate with the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage decision by refusing to recognize the marriage of a man whose husband is now deceased. That hearing was later canceled after Paxton's office agreed to recognize same-sex spouses on future death certificates.
While Wilson was not as openly defiant as Paxton, he clearly had the opportunity to avoid this six-figure fee but decided to ignore the writing on the wall after the Virginia decision. So not only was this preventable, but South Carolina taxpayers are now the ones forced to subsidize Wilson’s fundamentalist-inspired folly. This is often what happens when the Religious Right and its allies have too much influence over government.
So let this be a lesson to taxpayers – when religious fundamentalists persuade state officials to go to court to defend their radical agenda you’d better be prepared to open up your wallet.