Judge promises quick ruling in Pa. gay marriage case

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HARRISBURG -- Following Wednesday arguments, a Commonwealth Court judge has promised a prompt ruling in the case of a county official issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, contrary to the 1996 state law that forbids such unions.

D. Bruce Hanes, the register of wills in suburban Philadelphia's Montgomery County, has issued more than 100 marriage licenses to same-sex couples since July.

The constitutionality of the state's law prohibiting same-sex marriage wasn't addressed by either side in the courtroom Wednesday. Rather, lawyers argued about more narrow legal issues, such as if the state's Department of Health has standing to bring the case against Mr. Hanes, and if Mr. Hanes is a "judicial officer" in his role.

Commonwealth Court President Judge Dan Pellegrini sternly told the crowded courtroom the broader marriage issue was not up for discussion Wednesday.

A number of same-sex couples filled the courtroom, as did opponents of gay marriage.

"What is not before us today is the constitutionality of the Pennsylvania marriage act. What's before us today is, who decides?" the judge said.

Montgomery County Solicitor Raymond McGarry told the court that the Department of Health has no legal standing to bring the case against Mr. Hanes. Only the state attorney general, the district attorney of Montgomery County or a "private citizen with a specific and independent legal right or interest different than the public at large" has standing, according to arguments in briefs filed by Mr. Hanes' side.

"They're the plaintiff in this case and they have no right to be here," Mr. McGarry said.

The state argues the health department does have standing, as it keeps records on marriage and "has interest in the record-keeping system and the integrity of the record-keeping system," said the attorney for the state's Office of General Counsel, Greg Dunlap.

The state contends Mr. Hanes overstepped his role, and the licenses he has granted aren't valid.

"The law is the law, and we follow the law. ... We don't want to encourage public officials to take the law into their own hands," Mr. Dunlap said.

After the proceedings, the arguments spilled over outside the Pennsylvania Judicial Center, where advocates for both sides were shouting over each other and holding signs bearing messages such as "Marriage: One Man One Woman" and "Marriage + justice for all."

The Rev. Bill Devlin led a small group of demonstrators who said Montgomery County residents do not support Mr. Hanes' actions.

Bill Caldwell, a Montgomery County resident who obtained a marriage license with his partner of 28 years, said he felt it was important to be in court Wednesday to support Mr. Hanes.

"D. Bruce Hanes took a stand. And we think he took the right stand," he said.

The Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh, an LGBT advocacy group, would like to see Allegheny County officials follow Mr. Hanes' lead and start issuing same-sex marriage licenses, president Gary Van Horn said.

"Change does happen by people bucking the law, civil disobedience, whatever you want to call it," Mr. Van Horn said. "If the law is unconstitutional, it should be broken."

Judge Pellegrini said he would issue a decision in the case "as soon as I can."

A separate case, recently filed in federal court, challenges the constitutionality of the state's law against same-sex marriage.

breaking - state

Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise. First Published September 4, 2013 4:45 AM


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