For years, mentioning the name “Bunning” in Kentucky brought to mind former conservative Republican U.S. Senator and baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning.
This week has changed that.
His son, U.S. District Court Judge David Bunning, was thrust into the national spotlight on Thursday when he took a hard line against Kim Davis, an elected county clerk in Kentucky, for disobeying his order to follow U.S. law and issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Bunning found Davis in contempt and threw her into jail, a punishment more severe than the fines sought by lawyers representing the couples seeking licenses.
“The court doesn’t do this lightly,” Bunning said.
The case involving the Democratic clerk represents the first big challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling that same-sex couples have the right to marry under the U.S. Constitution.
Nominated to the court by former Republican U.S. President George W. Bush in 2001, Bunning joined the U.S. District court for the Eastern District of Kentucky in February 2002. He is a 1991 graduate of the University of Kentucky College of Law and a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky.
“Federal judges are nothing to be trifled with and that is whether they were appointed by a Democrat or a Republican,” said Ron Johnson, president of the Kentucky Justice Association, an association of trial lawyers.
Bunning grew up in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, as one of nine children born to Jim and Mary Bunning. While lawyers who have argued cases before him said he expresses no political opinions in the courtroom, his mother offered a glimpse of his leaning in an interview with local media.
“David is an honest person,” Mary Bunning told Cincinnati.com before the decision. “He doesn’t agree with the Supreme Court but has to obey the law.”
Bunning, one of eight judges sitting on the Eastern District bench, was escorted into the U.S. courthouse with a security detail on Thursday morning, according to CNN.
“I don’t know of another way to describe him, but Judge Bunning is simply extremely fair,” said Ben Dusing, a white-collar criminal defense lawyer in Covington, Kentucky, who has argued in front of Bunning both in his current private practice and in a prior job as a federal prosecutor.
Davis, 49, has won the support of social conservatives for refusing to issue licenses to any couples, gay or straight, since the landmark ruling, citing her beliefs an Apostolic Christian.
“I’ll be honest with you, the first time I appeared in front of him I was like, am I going to have Senator Jim Bunning Jr here? You very quickly realize that you do not,” said Johnson who has argued before Bunning on several occasions and describes him as very much a “rule of law guy.”
“The truth is there is just not a lot of room for that. In that space you are in the major leagues of legal practice and it is about applying facts to law,” said Dusing.
(Reporting by Daniel Bases in New York; Additional reporting by Steve Bittenbender in Ashland, Kentucky; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)