PITTSBURGH – The ACLU of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project filed a lawsuit today on behalf of an inmate whose attempts to get married have been thwarted by both the Fayette County Register of Wills and the State Correctional Institute (SCI) in Fayette. In Pennsylvania, both people wishing to wed must appear in person to apply for a marriage license. Although other state prisons have allowed people who are incarcerated to meet this requirement by using the institution’s video-conferencing equipment, SCI-Fayette administrators have refused to make any accommodation, and the Fayette County Register of Wills is unwilling to travel to the facility. According to the lawsuit, the right to marry is a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution that cannot be denied because of the incarceration of one partner to the marriage.
"We’ve all made mistakes in life,” said Norma Scott, a Philadelphia resident whose fiancé, Kevin Davis, has been incarcerated since 2007. “But Kevin and others like him still have rights. He still has the right to be loved. His conviction cost him his freedom, but he still has the right to a family. I'm his partner."
Scott and Davis, who have known each other for over 40 years, have been trying to get married since 2013. Both SCI-Fayette administrators and the Fayette County Register of Wills have refused to make their respective video-conferencing facilities available to inmates who wish to apply for a marriage license. In 2014, SCI-Fayette administrators told Davis that inmates cannot get married at the facility and that the only avenue available to him and his fiancée would be for him to work toward a difficult-to-obtain Incentive Based Transfer to another institution that does allow inmates to marry.
"Prisoners lose many freedoms as a result of their incarceration, but their right to marry undoubtedly remains," said Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project.
The lawsuit asks the court to either order SCI-Fayette and the Register of Wills to make their video-conferencing facilities available to Davis or to declare the state law requiring both people to appear in person to obtain a marriage license unconstitutional as applied to inmates who are unable to meet that requirement.
”The fundamental right to marry was reaffirmed by the United States Supreme Court this term,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “The government is obligated to find a way for individuals who cannot meet the ‘in person’ requirement’ — whether due to incarceration or disability — to exercise this right.”
The federal lawsuit filed today is Davis v. Coleman. A second lawsuit will be filed on behalf of Scott against the Fayette County Register of Wills. Scott and Davis are represented by Sara Rose of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Morgan-Kurtz of the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project, and John Gisleson and Stephanie Reiss of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP.
A copy of the complaint can be found at: www.aclupa.org/davis