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Nebraska Supreme Court Reverses Injunction Against Ban on Prisoner-Prisoner Marriages

On September 29, 2017, the Nebraska Supreme Court reversed a state district court’s summary judgment order and grant of injunctive relief that enjoined the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) from denying a marriage ceremony via videoconference to two prisoners who wanted to marry, or enforcing its policy prohibiting such marriages.

Paul Gillpatrick and Niccole Wetherell are Nebraska state prisoners serving lengthy sentences. They each filed a “Marriage Intention Form,” listing the other as their intended spouse and requesting a marriage ceremony via videoconference. The requests were denied because an internal NDCS policy prohibits prisoners from being transported for the purpose of marriage, and prison officials interpreted Neb. Rev. Stat. § 42-109 to require the physical presence of both parties at a marriage ceremony.

After exhausting administrative remedies, Gillpatrick and Wetherell filed a civil rights action in state court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Nebraska Constitution. Their initial complaint named NDCS, its director and two wardens in their official capacities. The suit was later amended, dropping NDCS and suing the other defendants only in their individual capacities.

“At its most basic, this case is about challenging the government’s authority to impose an unnecessary and unduly restrictive limitation upon the rights of Nebraska inmates to marry,” stated ACLU of Nebraska Legal Director Amy Miller.

The district court held the NDCS had misinterpreted § 42-109 as prohibiting marriage ceremonies via videoconference, unconstitutionally burdening the plaintiffs’ right to marry. It granted summary judgment to Gillpatrick and Wetherell, and enjoined the NDCS from denying them a marriage ceremony via videoconference or enforcing its policy prohibiting such marriage ceremonies. The NDCS officials appealed.

The Supreme Court of Nebraska initially held it had jurisdiction because a judgment in a § 1983 case is considered final even if a motion for attorney fees was pending when the notice of appeal was filed. It then held that the state’s sovereign immunity did not bar the suit. The Court seemed sympathetic to the prisoners’ arguments. Nonetheless, it held they had made a fatal error in suing the NDCS officials only in their individual capacities, because injunctive relief is only available against state officials who have been sued in their official capacities in an action under § 1983. Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed the district court’s judgment and remanded the case with instructions to vacate the injunction.

Gillpatrick and Wetherell were represented by the ACLU of Nebraska Foundation and cooperating attorney Michael Gooch. See: Gillpatrick v. Sabatke-Rine, 297 Neb. 880, 902 N.W.2d 115 (Neb. 2017). 

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Related legal case

Gillpatrick v. Sabatke-Rine