Taking on Kim Davis
Louisville attorney Laura Landenwich sued the Rowan County clerk for refusing to issue marriage licenses after the U.S. Supreme Court approved same-sex marriage
Published in 2017 Ohio Super Lawyers Magazine on December 7, 2016
When Laura Landenwich decided to focus her practice on civil rights, she expected most of the cases to be uphill battles. What she didn’t expect was for one of them to put her in the global spotlight before she turned 40.
At age 36, Landenwich took on a headline-grabbing suit against Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, who in 2015 refused to issue marriage licenses to anyone, gay or straight, because of her religious opposition to same-sex marriage. The clerk’s action followed the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v Hodges—in which Landenwich was also involved—that legalized same-sex marriage.
“We walked down to the county clerk’s office here in Louisville,” she says of the day Obergefell came down, “and we had rainbow flags and Kentucky flags. It was sort of this impromptu parade, and people were honking their horns and cheering us. … The mayor of the city had a bottle of champagne for our clients,” who were among the plaintiffs whose cases were consolidated into Obergefell.
The reaction was considerably different in Rowan County, where Landenwich ended up representing four couples—two gay (April Miller and Karen Ann Roberts; Aaron Skaggs and Barry W. Spartman) and two straight (Shantel Burke and Stephen Napier; Jody Fernandez and Kevin Holloway)—in their suit against Davis.
Landenwich started her career as an associate at a mid-sized, full-service firm. “I was at the bottom of the ladder in terms of cases that I would get,” she says. “Somebody in that office had a civil rights case involving a horrible jail death that had sort of languished. No one was really all that interested in working on it.”
So Landenwich found herself representing the family of a 36-year-old woman who died in a county jail after being arrested on a drug charge.
“She died of pneumonia—the most curable form of pneumonia there is—that any antibiotic would have taken care of,” she says. “By the time anyone took an interest in her, IV antibiotics couldn’t save her. I was appalled by that case. …. That was when I decided that I really wanted to do civil rights work.”
After Landenwich settled that case, she established her own civil rights and general litigation practice at Clay Daniel Walton & Adams in 2010.
Three years later, she took on the fight for same-sex marriage in Love v. Beshear, which later became part of Obergefell. Timothy Love and Lawrence Ysunza, together for more than 30 years, were among six Kentucky couples who ended up hiring Landenwich to challenge the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Love, who has since married Ysunza, refers to Landenwich as “our Atticus Finch: She was willing to hear our plea for help and take on an impossibly tough case for what is right.”
Landenwich had a personal stake in the issue as well: Her aunt was in a long-term relationship with another woman. The couple had been married in New York, but their union wasn’t legally recognized in their home state of Kentucky. After Obergefell, Landenwich says, “it was so emotionally rewarding, to have a sense that I made an impact on people across the country, and people who I’m close to and I care about in my own personal life.”
The experience in the Davis case was also personal—but in a different way. “The thing that stood out the most was the really intense media scrutiny, and the intense opposition, more than any of the actual legal arguments,” she recalls.
“In the marriage cases [Love v. Beshear], we got a little bit of hate mail at the office, but nothing alarming. With the Kim Davis case, I got letters at my home. ... I was like, ‘This is crossing a line. Send it to the office, fine; I don’t care; it happens.’” There were no direct threats, she says, “so I didn’t report anything to the police, but there were death wishes.”
Landenwich’s clients eventually got their marriage licenses in Rowan County. But she was not happy about Davis being able to “opt out” of signing marriage licenses. Kentucky later responded to the case by removing court clerk signatures from future marriage licenses statewide.
“There are still some people out there who have recorded in their public record—not explicitly but implicitly—her protest. I wouldn’t call it a complete victory,” Landenwich says. “The issue’s been resolved now, but to have a marriage license that memorializes her protest to your life is, I think, still an affront to your human dignity.”
Path to Victory
June 26, 2015 U.S. Supreme Court consolidates cases from four states into Obergefell v. Hodges and rules that states cannot ban same-sex marriage.
June 29, 2015 Rowan County Clerk of Courts Kim Davis says she will stop issuing marriage licenses because of her religious convictions.
July 2, 2015 Landenwich, colleague Dan Canon and the ACLU sue Davis on behalf of four Rowan County couples who were denied marriage licenses.
Aug. 12, 2015 U.S. District Judge David L. Bunning orders Davis to issue marriage licenses to all couples.
Sept. 3, 2015 Judge Bunning orders Davis jailed for contempt of court until she complies.
Sept. 8, 2015 Davis is released; meanwhile, deputy clerks have issued marriage licenses to the plaintiffs.
Sept. 14, 2015 Davis does not prevent her deputy clerks from issuing marriage licenses without her seal.
Dec. 22, 2015 New Gov. Matt Bevin removes county clerks’ names from marriage licenses in Kentucky.
April 19, 2016 Miller v. Davis is dismissed as moot.