Commissioner Diane M. Marseglia, the board’s lone Democrat, voted against the payment.
Bucks County Register of Wills Donald Petrille Jr. is a defendant in a lawsuit that seeks marriage equality in Pennsylvania.
The lawsuit is known as Whitewood v. Wolf, and Petrille is a defendant because he refused to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple.
Begley, Carlin & Mandio LLP represented Petrille between July 2013-February 2014. The firm requested payment for 81 hours of work, at $165 an hour.
Marseglia said a legal brief filed by Begley exceeded the commissioners’ consent, and didn’t accurately reflect her position on marriage equality.
“We did not approve this kind of legal bill to get this high,” Marseglia said at the April 2 commissioners’ meeting.
If a payment to the firm must be made, Marseglia said, it should be discounted. But she was told the firm already discounted its hourly rate.
The legal work could have been handled by county attorneys, Marseglia added.
“We also could have ignored this [lawsuit and legal bill] and not responded,” she added.
After the meeting, Marseglia said the commissioners only sought a “cursory” legal response to Whitewood — along the lines that marriage is a state issue, not a county issue.
“We agreed the only issue to deal with was that we were not the ones to sue,” she told PGN. “I also believe it is acceptable to not pay the bill as [Begley Carlin & Mandio] exceeded what they were permitted to do.”
The firm’s brief contends that “same-sex marriage is unable to serve all of the social goals of marriage,” that children shouldn’t be denied access to the “comfort of their creators” and that “[u]ntil very recently, the definition of marriage was entirely uncontroversial.”
At the April 2 meeting, Commissioner Charles H. Martin said he didn’t necessarily agree with the “sum and substance” of the firm’s legal brief but that Petrille had to be defended.
Commissioner Chairman Robert G. Loughery also voted in favor of the $13,500 payment.
After the meeting, Marseglia said the firm and Petrille should ensure that the $13,500 payment isn’t accepted.
“The law firm and the register of wills ought to refuse payment as I believe this is close to malpractice,” Marseglia said. “I found the arguments presented to be insulting and mean-spirited and not in line with my values or opinions.”
The firm no longer represents Petrille in the lawsuit, according to court records.
Janice Skrot, a spokesperson for Begley, Carlin & Mandio, declined to say whether the firm will accept the $13,500. But this statement was issued on behalf of the firm:
“The role of the attorney has been lost here. We at Begley, Carlin & Mandio, LLP represent all of our clients zealously. [Petrille] was sued for performing a ministerial duty in which he had no discretion to deviate from existing law and no authority to change existing law. He retained our firm for the ensuing federal litigation to attempt to get his office dismissed. In defending his office we used precedent from federal cases involving public officials on this specific issue that was successful in other jurisdictions. Not making these arguments would have been a failure to our client. Attorneys represent and defend clients in all different types of matters using legal arguments, which do not necessarily represent the views of the clients or the attorneys involved in the case. Here, the legal arguments which were successful in other similar cases may not have represented the views of the county commissioners or [Petrille]. Certainly every client is entitled to and should expect a zealous defense if they are sued as our client was in this case. We represent clients in various municipal, zoning, criminal, family and estate matters and do not always personally agree with our clients’ views, but counsel them on the state of the law, using all available precedent. In this case, the legal arguments made may not represent the views of all parties, but [Petrille] was entitled to a defense. That is the job of an attorney.”
Petrille couldn’t be reached for comment.
The Whitewood lawsuit, which was filed by the ACLU, remains pending before U.S. District Judge John E. Jones 3d.
LGBT advocates hope Whitewood will bring about marriage equality in the entire country, if it goes to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Marseglia spoke in an understanding manner about her fellow commissioners.
“I think they were as perturbed as I was aghast at what was written in the brief. Shocked. I see no reason for us to pay for what was an unapproved attempt to make policy — one that I disagree with.”