Case #2014.0

Role Responsibility, Official Disobedience, and the Supreme Court's Ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act

Publication Date: April 30, 2014
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In June, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the federal Defense of Marriage Act violated the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment protection of equal liberty, effectively overturning the law. Pennsylvania, however, banned same-sex marriage. Despite the state law, D. Bruce Hanes, a register of wills in Pennsylvania, agreed to honor a request from two women seeking a same-sex marriage license--an act of official disobedience that immediately threw Hanes under a national spotlight. Citing his oath to uphold both the Pennsylvania and U.S. constitutions and noting that the two were diametrically opposed on the issue, Hanes said: I decided to come down on the right side of history and the law.”

Officials in Texas were also struggling with the ruling. Soon after the ruling, the Department of Defense (DOD) instructed federal military facilities to begin enrolling same-sex spouses of military service members in military benefits programs. In Texas, however, where state law prohibited same-sex marriage, Texas Military Forces (TMF) indicated it would not comply with the DOD directive. Because TMF was a state agency, the commanding general said the agency would be unable to process benefits for same-sex couples. TMF members took an oath to defend both the U.S. and Texas constitutions, setting the stage for the conflict.

Using the context of contemporary same-sex marriage laws, the case explores two sides of the same coin: in states where same-sex marriage is illegal, one official decides to defy the law while another chooses to refuse to comply with a federal directive to do so. The case asks students to consider if and when official disobedience--the refusal by a public official, acting in an official capacity, to follow the law--is justified.

Learning Objective:
How should political actors behave? The question requires consideration of the many and often competing obligations that should guide political actors, particularly when there is disagreement about what is good, just, and legitimate public policy. Those who seek to govern well are inescapably confronted in their professional and personal decisions with questions of value. This case is designed to provoke critical thinking about the moral responsibilities of public actors in a democracy.

Other Details

Teaching Plan:
Available with Educator Access
Case Author:
Laura Winig
Faculty Lead:
Christopher Robichaud
Pages (incl. exhibits):
United States
Funding Source:
Joseph B. Tompkins, Jr. Fund for Case Study and Research