‘Rogue’ clerk’s Pa. legal woes over same-sex marriage licenses coming to an end

 D. Bruce Hanes, the register of wills for Montgomery County, will soon say goodbye to the legal troubles that have haunted him since 2013. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo, file)

D. Bruce Hanes, the register of wills for Montgomery County, will soon say goodbye to the legal troubles that have haunted him since 2013. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo, file)

Montgomery County clerk Bruce Hanes said he felt vindicated when the country’s highest court last week legalized same-sex marriage. Now, he’s even more relieved because his legal troubles are about to be over.

Attorneys for Pennsylvania’s Department of Health have filed a motion to stop representing the department in a lawsuit against Hanes for issuing marriage licenses to gay couples in defiance of state law at the time. 

The filing signals that the state is prepared to dismiss the case altogether.

In June of 2013, the state sued Hanes, portrayed as a rogue clerk at the time, for violating state marriage laws. “Ours is a government of laws, not one of public officials exercising their will as they believe the law should be or will be,” the suit read.

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But, about a year later, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III struck down the state’s same-sex marriage ban.

Before the ruling, Hanes issued 174 marriage licenses to same-sex couples over a six-week period, saying he regarded the same-sex marriage ban as unconstitutional. 

Critics of Hanes said those 174 couples should have to reapply for licenses.

Hanes’ attorneys and the state have reached a more novel resolution: making the 174 licenses legal after May 20, 2014, when same-sex marriage became legal in Pennsylvania.

“They’re married. No question about it,” Hanes said. “When did they get married? Eh, there is some question about that.” 

“But now what are they going to do about me? They stopped me from doing it,” he said. “And, if you recall, when Jones issued his opinion, everyone else in the commonwealth could issue marriage licenses, I was the only one who couldn’t because I had a stay against me.”

About a week later, Hanes was able to get the stay lifted. But his appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court over Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pellegrini’s order stopping him from signing licenses has been lingering, even if its effect has been merely symbolic.

Meanwhile, the county has issued more than 500 same-sex marriage licenses.

For Hanes, the case presents a quandary. If he withdraws his appeal, he says, the order preventing him from signing licenses could theoretically go back into effect, even though the argument that underpinned it – gay marriage is illegal – has been refuted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

If he does nothing, it could stay pending forever, he said, but the original order never vanishes. 

So, both sides are now working to quash the case.

Amy Worden, spokeswoman for the state’s health department, wouldn’t comment on the tentative deal being worked out. “The parties are working to resolve this matter without further involvement of the court,” she said.

Hanes thinks untangling the legal mess could take some time.

“There is some tidying up to do, and that’ll be done in the next month or two,” Hanes said. “It will all be sorted out, and everybody will be happy.”

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