Hanes is the Montgomery County Register of Wills whose decision to grant licenses to same-sex couples made national headlines and sparked an ongoing lawsuit. While the legal impact of his decision will play out in the courts over the coming months, Hanes’ gutsy move has already fueled new waves of discussion and debate about the constitutional issues involved in prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying — and has given new hope to Pennsylvania couples seeking full equality in the Keystone State.
Coming to the decision
Hanes, 66, is a native of New Orleans who has lived in Montgomery County for more than four decades.
He and his wife of 42 years, Rosemary, live in Elkins Park and have two adult daughters.
Hanes attained his law degree from Temple University and taught real-estate law there, as well as served as assistant attorney general for the state Department of Justice, before entering private practice.
Rosemary said Hanes has been active in politics since moving to the area, serving as a committeeperson and later co-chair for Cheltenham Township, experiences that inspired him to seek public office. He made two unsuccessful bids for countywide office before being elected in 2007 as Montgomery County’s Register of Wills and Clerk of Orphans’ Court, the first Democrat to ever be elected to the office, and one of five Dems that year who shook up the longheld Republican-controlled Montgomery County government.
Hanes was reelected in 2011.
Rosemary said her husband’s six years in office were relatively without controversy.
But that all changed this past summer.
In July, a few weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court found a key portion of the federal ban on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional, a lesbian couple from Montgomery County approached Hanes’ office to ask if he would issue them a marriage license. The issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex couples, without a state law allowing such, has rarely been done, except for such cases as 2004’s action by San Francisco’s then-mayor Gavin Newsom and similar actions in New Mexico.
Rosemary said her husband let her know he was considering the request.
“We did discuss it. He let me know he was talking about it with his colleagues and researching the law,” she said. “He wanted to make sure the decision he made was backed up by law.”
After extensive consultation with county attorneys, Hanes determined he would grant the request — and not in a calculated political move or protest, but rather as a matter of fulfilling his job responsibilities.
“We spent a lot of time talking about it before he made the announcement, discussing it from both a moral standpoint and a legal standpoint,” said Josh Shapiro, chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Montgomery County. “For Bruce, it was about doing what he thought was right, not about the politics of the moment. I admire him for that.”
In a July 23 statement, Hanes cited a number of sections of the constitution that he believes the state ban on same-sex marriage violates, adding that, as a public official, he is tasked with upholding the state and federal constitution. He also noted that his finding took into account the SCOTUS ruling and the decision days before by Attorney General Kathleen Kane to not defend the state law against a legal challenge because she found it “wholly unconstitutional.”
In his release, Hanes mentioned that the initial couple backed out of applying for the license but that he would have issued it and “wished them all the freedom, independence, happiness and rights” that the constitution “purports to grant to them.”
And with that, the marriage floodgates opened.
Love and marriage
Same-sex couples began arriving at Hanes’ office the morning of July 24. He granted four licenses that day, with the first issued to Pottstown residents Loreen Bloodgood and Alicia Terrizzi.
In the ensuing days, couples came from across the county, and the state, to apply for licenses.
“Oh, you could just see how it impacted them,” said Joan Nagel, First Deputy Register of Wills, Clerk of Orphans’ Court. “So many people have been waiting so long to have the opportunity to do this. Our office sees every day how important it is that they have the rights of spouses, in so many different ways — for state purposes, for IRS purposes, for Social Security purposes. It’s really a huge impact.”
Shapiro added that the joy emanating from the couples was contagious.
“It was unbelievably meaningful. It literally brought a tear to my eye,” he said. “It was amazing to see people, some of whom I know and some of whom I don’t know, who love their partners the same way I love mine and who wanted to enjoy the same rights and benefits my wife and I enjoy, be treated as equal in Montgomery County. It brought a terrific sense of pride to me and to our team.”
While there was jubilation around Hanes’ decision, it did set off a media firestorm — and attracted protestors to his office.
Rosemary said her husband knew his decision would draw attention, but he wasn’t quite expecting the level it received.
“He was not prepared. People told him, ‘There will be repercussions,’ but he had no idea that it would be as big as it was and continue as long as it has,” she said. “He was most concerned about the negative repercussions because in the first two days, his office was filled with people protesting his decision. But, soon after, that died down and the responses were good.”
Lynn Zeitlin and Gabriela Assagioli, together since 2000, were issued a license the same day that a number of the protestors assembled at Hanes’ office.
The couple said Hanes and his staff were warm and welcoming and made sure the couples were shielded from the protestors.
“We thanked him and took a picture with him,” Zeitlin said about Hanes. “He was definitely a presence there; he wasn’t hiding in his office. He was very much involved in the process. The whole atmosphere in the office was set by him and was very welcoming.”
Rosemary noted that one couple who received a license from Hanes later returned with a wedding cake for the whole office.
“The heartfelt, positive responses have been touching,” she said. “So many people he’s spoken to have said they’re glad he made the decision he did. Even people he had worked with prior are now coming forward, and it’s been nice to have them feel comfortable enough now to approach him. I have to say, one of the first people who contacted him was a woman who’s 90 who called and said, ‘Congratulations for the decision you made.’”
But, not everyone was pleased with Hanes’ action.
As soon as he began issuing the licenses, the clock seemingly began ticking for the state, led by a Republican governor, to respond. After about three-dozen same-sex couples received licenses, the administration finally made its move on July 30 — with a lawsuit led by the Department of Health, which compiles marriage statistics. The state asked for a writ of mandamus to compel Hanes to stop issuing licenses.
Through the end of the summer, both parties fired off a series of legal filings before meeting for oral arguments in early September in Harrisburg. On Sept. 12, Judge Dan Pellegrini granted the writ, shutting down Hanes’ operation.
The atmosphere at the office immediately reflected the change, Nagel said.
“We all felt very good while the applications were able to be taken,” she said. “I feel kind of sad that we’re not doing it anymore.”
Hanes appealed the decision in September to the state Supreme Court. He maintains the case should have been originally heard by the state top court and that the health department did not have standing to bring the suit in the first place.
Pellegrini’s ruling did not include a determination of the constitutionality of the state ban, or a finding on the validity of the 118 licenses that were issued and completed. Several-dozen of those couples subsequently filed their own suit in state court, requesting a determination about the legality of their licenses and the constitutionality of the marriage ban.
Measuring the impact
While marriage equality existed for just 51 days in Pennsylvania’s third-largest county, its impact is likely longer-lasting.
Among the already-visible effects of Montgomery County embracing marriage equality was that the very unusual development elicited a wealth of media coverage — and ensuing public debate — from all corners of the Keystone State.
Newspaper articles detailed the constitutional issues Hanes raised in easy-to-understand terms, and television stations carried images of and interviews with same-sex couples and their families, who put a public face to the legal issues. Political pundits, both experienced and amateur, opined on the possible ramifications of Hanes’ decision, allowing for full and fruitful debates at town-hall meetings, on television news-magazine programs and in the blogosphere about Pennsylvania’s law — which also, in some cases, allowed advocates to highlight the state’s lack of an LGBT nondiscrimination measure.
Hanes’ action also put public officials such as Gov. Tom Corbett on the spot. While Corbett was already a known opponent of same-sex marriage, the governor and his administration made two high-profile comments on the topic when talking about the Hanes case — first in an August filing in which the administration likened same-sex marriage to marriage between children, then when the governor himself compared marriage equality to incest during an interview on the earlier remarks. Both instances sought to enhance discussion about the inanity of the arguments against same-sex marriage.
And the outcome of the two cases relating to Hanes’ decision will also have an untold effect on the marriage-equality movement in the state.
When Pennsylvania does eventually become a marriage-equality state, Shapiro said, Hanes’ groundbreaking leadership will have been key in laying the foundation.
“Marriage equality will come to Pennsylvania, period,” Shapiro said. “The question is how long it will take. But Bruce Hanes’ actions here in Montgomery County have only served to speed up equality coming to Pennsylvania. I don’t know how long it’s going to take to happen, but I do know for sure it’ll happen.”
Throughout all of the media attention surrounding his case, Hanes himself has remained pretty quiet.
In his conversations with PGN, Hanes made sure to focus solely on the constitutional issues at hand and leave his personal views on the marriage-equality debate out of the discussion, a tactic he has taken in all of his other interviews and public appearances.
Rosemary said that was intentional — and indicative of her husband’s approach to most issues.
“Every time something comes up with this, he’s still kind of surprised and always says it’s not about him. He says, ‘Take the focus off me and put it on what we’re trying to do here. This is an equality issue. You can say things about me, but get to the idea behind it of what needs to be done,’” she said. “He’s always thought the law should be used to handle all of society’s problems. You read the law, see what it says and, if it doesn’t help us, work to change the law. That’s how he addresses issues. There are times when the law is not helping people, and if you are in a point or at a spot or in an office where you can do something about that, to get laws into effect that will help people, then he thinks that’s what you should do.”
While Hanes’ decision has been commended as courageous, Assagioli noted that she believes his commitment to the basic issue of fairness, at the root of the debate, is so strong that the decision was natural for him.
“I think he saw with great clarity the injustice and I think once you see there’s injustice, a lot of times it becomes clear what you need to do,” she said. “You don’t waver at all because you have such a conviction. He hasn’t wavered at all.”
In the fall, Hanes was honored with the OutProud Friend Award at OutFest and has been welcomed buoyantly at a number of LGBT events.
Rosemary said the acknowledgment is unusual for her otherwise-unassuming husband.
“He’s really kind of low-key in some ways, so this is not the kind of thing you would expect he would do,” she said. “He’s not the person who wants to be at the head of any march. But, if he can do that through legal methods, that’s his way. That’s just him.”