Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who first caught our attention when he defied a federal court ruling ordering the removal of a Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama state judicial building (a stance that ultimately got him impeached and removed from office) is back in the news. Moore has managed to excite the ire of the media and gay marriage supporters by arguing, per this Wall Street Journal report, that Alabama’s state judges are not bound to follow a recent ruling by a federal district court that the state’s law restricting the definition of marriage to the union of one mand= and one woman is unconstitutional and unenforceable. The fact is, however, that Moore is correct, as Ed Whelan points out in this recent post from national Review’s Bench Memo’s blog.
As Whelan correctly observes, none of Alabama’s judges were parties to the federal court litigation, and thus not directly covered by the court’s order. It s also true, moreover, that state court judges are not, as a matter of law, bound to follow as precedential the decisions of lower federal court judges. The district court’s order isn’t even binding on the judge’s own colleagues on the district court. It is really beyond dispute that the rather modest proposition that Judge Moore has put forward is correct as a matter of law. Judge Moore has provided us with a useful reminder that, contrary to what some may think, the federal courts are not all seeing and all knowing, and are not always the last word on federal constitutional questions.