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Judicial Decisions and the Impact on Public Administration

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael Faass
February 27, 2015

“If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t,” Admiral Hyman G. Rickover said.

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As public administrators, we chose to serve the general public by working for the bureaucracy. At times, each of us are faced with making decisions solely based on ensuring we still have a job in the days to come. A prime example has been Alabama’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore. He ordered all 67 county probate judges to disregard U.S. District Judge Callie Grande’s ruling that Alabama’s law prohibiting same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. He said all probate judges in Alabama must start issuing marriage license to same-sex couples. Judge Grande also negated the Sanctity of Marriage Amendment and the Alabama Marriage Protection Act in the same ruling.

This judicial ruling puts each probate judge and their office personnel in a tough quandary. Do they follow the federal courts ruling, or do as ordered by the Alabama Chief Justice?  It could be a no-win situation for the public servants, since regardless of their actions they will be ‘sinning’ against a bureaucracy.

Probate Judge Steven L. Reed was the first probate judge to begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses. On CNN’s “State of the Union” he said that while the decision to issue same-sex marriage licenses might be unpopular, he only needed “the federal judge [to tell] us what we needed to do, and to me that was as clear-cut as I needed in order to make a decision.” Ariel Edwards of the Huffington Post has reported that 50 of the 67 counties are indeed issuing marriage licenses as of Feb. 15, 2015.

While The Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution clearly empowers the federal judge to overrule Alabama’s discriminatory laws, it does nothing to protect the personnel who implement the federal order from reprisals from those who opposed the federal court order.

Judge Reed made his decision, along with 49 other judges, to comply with the federal ruling based on the Supremacy Clause.

Everyone has heard of someone or knows someone who has been terminated under unusual circumstances. But could the termination be traced back to a ‘sin’ or that of action the individual did against the bureaucracy?

In graduate school, we study, discuss and write papers about the bureaucracy. How it has a life of its own, how it can contribute to the downfall, the protection and the sluggish we know as government. How it closes ranks when it is attacked from the outside and how it ostracizes any individual who attacks it from within. So the question to ask is who will protect the public servants in Alabama who ‘sinned’ against the state chief justice?

Public administrators are faced with daily decisions that impact the lives of many in the general population. Sometimes their decisions are cheered, but just as often their decisions are unpopular. When there is an unpopular decision, the general public, the media (most of the time) and elected public officials looking for an election sound bite will blame the public administrator for the actions taken. Yet all too often the decision made by a public administrator, as in this case, was not made by a public administrator but mandated by a federal judge. That will probably be lost somewhere along the way as the story continues to unfold.

The judicial process that has occurred in Alabama followed the due process of our country’s laws. However, forgotten in the process is how can those who implement the changes, unpopular in many camps, be protected from recrimination and termination by the superiors of the opposing camps?

The judicial process has forced the state of Alabama to accept a new reality in 2015 and all people are indeed equal. But only time will tell if the bureaucracy will protect those who are executing the federal court ruling.

Author: Michael Faass, is the owner of R3, and a MPA graduate of the University of North Georgia.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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