On Saturday, June 24, 2023, Reuters reported that the Texas Supreme Court will hear arguments regarding the revival of a state judge’s lawsuit against the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct. The judge, Dianne Hensley, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1, Place 1, Waco, McLennan County in Texas, was sanctioned by the panel in 2019 for refusing to officiate same-sex marriage ceremonies.
Hensley, who cited her sincerely held religious beliefs as a Christian, claimed that her faith prevented her from officiating same-sex weddings. Consequently, she ceased performing weddings altogether following the November 2019 public warning issued by the Commission.
In response to the public warning, Hensley filed a lawsuit against the Commission on April 10, 2023, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and compensatory damages related to her refusal to wed same-sex couples under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. However, she did not appeal the initial sanction. Her legal team, led by conservative lawyer Jonathan Mitchell and supported by attorneys from the First Liberty Institute, argued that the state appeals court erred in upholding the dismissal of her lawsuit. They contended that expressing a religious belief opposing same-sex marriage should not be grounds to question a judge’s impartiality.
On the other side, lawyers representing the judicial conduct commission urged the Texas Supreme Court not to take up the case, describing it as a “collateral attack” against the previous disciplinary order. They requested the court to affirm the ruling dismissing the lawsuit, highlighting that Hensley is barred from suing the commission
The Texas Supreme Court has decided to hear arguments on whether to revive Dianne Hensley’s lawsuit against the judicial ethics panel. This decision indicates that the court recognizes the significance of the case and its potential impact on the rights of judges to express their religious beliefs.
Douglas Lang, the lawyer representing the Commission, stated that they would emphasize the importance of the Commission’s work in ensuring judges’ adherence to the rule of law, regardless of the popularity or unpopularity of a particular law. On the other hand, Justin Butterfield, Hensley’s attorney, expressed confidence that the Texas Supreme Court would rectify what they perceive as an injustice against their client.
Jonathan Mitchell, a conservative attorney who spearheaded Texas’ anti-abortion legislative initiatives, is the head of Hensley’s legal defense team. Additionally, she is being defended by lawyers from the libertarian First Liberty Institute, which frequently takes cases involving religious freedom.
Earlier this year, Hesley’s attorneys complained to the Texas Supreme Court that a state appeals court had committed a mistake by upholding the dismissal of her claim. Judge Hensley’s attorneys argued that while it may not be as popular to publicly oppose same-sex marriage as it once was, this is still no justification to call into question the impartiality of a judge who openly professes a religious conviction that marriage should only be between one man and a one woman.
Lawyers for the Commission urged the justices not to take up the case and described Hensley’s lawsuit as a “collateral attack” on the disciplinary order. They requested that the court uphold the decision that the lawsuit was dismissed on a number of grounds, including the fact that she is not permitted to file a lawsuit against the commission “lest the law of Texas be turned on its ear.”