For over 40 years, interracial couples in the US have been able to marry. In 1967, the US Supreme Court prohibited race-based limitations on marriage in the landmark case, Loving v. Virginia. In this unanimous decision, the court ruled that under the Constitution, "the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State."1
However, a judge in Louisiana seems to need a constitutional law refresher course.
Beth Humphrey, a white account manager in Louisiana recently married Terrence McKay, a black welder. They needed their marriage license signed and requested the local justice, Keith Bardwell, to sign their license. Bardwell, however, refused to sign the license, explaining he has a personal policy against interracial marriage.
The Judge's Position
When questioned about his controversial policy, Bardwell defended himself, "I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way. I have piles and piles of black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom. I treat them just like everyone else."2
Rather, he thinks his policy is helpful. He believes that interracial children have harder lives due to their parents' decision, "I think those children suffer and I won't help put them through it," he defends.3
Bardwell estimates that he's turned down four interracial couples in the last few years.
Upon hearing this story, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a letter to the Louisiana Judiciary Committee, asking them to review Bardwell's actions and charge him with severe sanctions.
Since the refusal, the couple got their marriage license signed by another judge and have filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against Bardwell.
Do Judges Have Special Duties?
Judges have an obligation to honor their state and country's constitutions and laws. Furthermore, judges are public officials. They are under an obligation to conduct their official duties in good faith, fairly and impartially. If they fail to meet these obligations, their actions can amount to misconduct. Such actions aren't only damaging to the judge or the couples affected, but also to the reputation and integrity of public agencies and officials.
As a result, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal commented that Bardwell should lose his license. Also, the National Urban League said in a statement that Bardwell's actions were "a huge step backward in social justice."4 They have called for an investigation into the incident by the US Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
Following media attention and the lawsuit, Bardwell resigned from his post. He quit with a one-sentence statement to the Louisiana Secretary of State and no explanation of his decision.
Afterwards, when speaking to reporters, Bardwell explained that he was advised "that I needed to step down because they was [sic] going to take me to court, and I was going to lose."5
However, Bardwell still doesn't think he's done anything wrong. "I would probably do the same thing again," he said. "I found out I can't be a justice of the peace and have a conscience."6 He told reporters he had no regrets about the decision. "It's kind of hard to apologize for something that you really and truly feel down in your heart you haven't done wrong," he said.7
Because Bardwell was a state employee, his actions have been scrutinized and criticized by many other public officials. Louisiana Senator Mary L. Landrieu had called for Bardwell's dismissal. She commented that, "Bardwell has finally consented to the will of the vast majority of Louisiana citizens and nearly every governmental official in Louisiana.
Bardwell's refusal to issue marriage licenses to interracial couples was out of step with our Louisiana values and reflected terribly on our state. We are better off without him in public service."8
If This Happens to You
If you suspect that a government worker has discriminated against you, there are several actions you can take. First, inquire and research about which anti-discrimination law is relevant to you. There are anti-discriminatory laws based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin and disability.
Try to resolve the issue informally, perhaps by contacting the person's supervisor. Then if the problem remains unresolved, you can consider filing a compaint the with appropriate government agency. A lawyer will be able to assist you with all of these steps.
You can also seek the support of agencies such as the American Civil Liberties Union or other state organizations that assist with such claims. In any event, you should know that you have rights in such situations and that help is available.
Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967). 2
Chris Herring, Interracial Newlyweds Derailed in Dixie, The Wall Street Journal, October 16, 2009, available at http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2009/10/16/interracial-newlyweds-derailed-in-dixie/?mod=djemWEB&reflink=djemWEB&reflink=djemWLB, visited Nov. 20, 2009.3
Shawn Nottingham, Louisiana Justice Who Refused Interracial Marriage Resigns, CNN, Nov. 4, 2009, available at http://edition.cnn.com/2009/US/11/03/louisiana.interracial.marriage/index.html, visited Nov. 20, 2009.6
Questions for Your Attorney
- If I think a government official violated my civil rights, as in this story, what should I do? Can I get help just by trying again, for example, going to a different judge?
- Is it possible to sue a government body for discrimination as in this story? What legal remedy could be sought in a lawsuit, money damages, for example?
- If I think I have a civil rights lawsuit, in which court system would I file a lawsuit, state or federal?