Mild-Mannered Official Sparks Marriage Firestorm in Pennsylvania
PHILADELPHIA - D. Bruce Hanes isn’t the type of person you expect to see igniting a political firestorm.
The mild-mannered Montgomery County register of wills went out on a limb July 24 when he began issuing same-sex marriage licenses in violation of state law.
Since then, his round face, gray mustache, and bottle-rim glasses have been splashed on TV and in newspapers. He’s been bombarded by journalists, hailed as a hero, and vilified as a lawbreaker. State attorneys, suing Hanes in Commonwealth Court, portrayed him as a rogue bureaucrat, sowing chaos throughout the state.
Though this isn’t Hanes’ first brush with controversy, those who know him say it all comes down to honesty.
"I would never question his integrity," said Harvey Portner, a Cheltenham Township commissioner and Democrat who has known Hanes for nearly 20 years. "Some people may not agree with him, but he’s doing what he feels is the appropriate thing at the particular time in our cultural background and history."
Even those who disagree with Hanes’ actions have defended him as a person.
"I think Mr. Hanes has overstepped his authority dramatically. This despite the fact that in all other respects I find him to be an upstanding public official and a man of reasoned and thoughtful judgment," said County Commissioner Bruce Castor, a Republican.
Hanes, 66, is a staunch Democrat, but his entry into politics appears to have been somewhat accidental.
As a newlywed finishing law school at Temple in the 1970s, he had friends in the local Democratic Party and went to a meeting. "I don’t know, I just got into it," Hanes said. "It was a form of community involvement."
He spent more than a decade as co-chair of the Cheltenham Democrats alongside Steve McCarter, now a state legislator. After unsuccessful bids for district judge in 1997 and controller in 2005, Hanes tried for another office in 2007, when Democrats in the county "thought we could get some commissioners who were of our party, get some row officers," he said.
They were right.
Hanes and the Democrats swept in as register of wills, clerk of courts, controller, coroner and prothonotary. For the first time in 50 years, a Democrat came in second place for the three-seat Board of Commissioners.
In 2011, Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards were elected the county’s first Democratic-majority commissioners in more than 100 years.
Hanes won by narrow margins in 2007 and 2011 - 2 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively. Why had he chosen register of wills, essentially a bureaucratic clerkship?
"It seemed like a good suit," Hanes said, "inasmuch as I’ve been doing litigation all these years, and part of it was litigation in Orphans Court." As register of wills he also is clerk of Orphans Court, responsible for issuing marriage licenses and administering adoptions.
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It is unusual for a register of wills to be a lawyer, but Hanes’ first deputy, Joan H. Nagel - also a lawyer - said he brought needed skills to the office. "He’s very organized and methodical. He brought the abilities of an attorney, for the first time, to this position," Nagel said.
Those abilities came into play early in his tenure, when counties clashed over the issuance of "Quaker," or self-uniting, licenses which allow couples to marry without a minister. In 2007, clerks in Bucks and Delaware counties and others began asking couples to provide proof of religious affiliation before issuing the licenses.
Hanes, along with the clerks in Philadelphia and Chester counties, argued that it was inappropriate to ask those questions or deny self-uniting licenses to non-Quakers. He told The Inquirer, "I’m elected to carry out the law evenly, not interpret the law to suit my beliefs."
Hanes said that statement was entirely consistent with his current stance. "I’m not going to ask, ’What religion are you?’ It seems to me almost unconstitutional to even ask that" he said in an interview Wednesday. "This is essentially the same thing - what I consider to be an unconstitutional statute, which requires me essentially to pay attention to somebody’s gender."
Other county clerks - even the Democratic clerk in gay-friendly Philadelphia - disagree. The Association of Registers of Wills and Clerks of Orphans Court adopted a resolution not to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples until the legislature or the courts say otherwise.
Hanes, a Civil War aficionado, is a member of the Union League and lectures on Civil War-era legal and political topics. He served in the Army as a language interpreter and worked as an assistant attorney general before going into private practice.
He’s quick to laugh and betrays a bit of a romantic streak.
On Valentine’s Day, he likes to keep the office open late so couples can get marriage licenses after work. He brings in flowers for the staff, trying to keep the atmosphere "genial and bright." Describing how he met his future wife on a blind date, Hanes recalled: "It was a misty evening. It looked like an old British movie with the streetlight and the mist coming in."
As gay and lesbian couples filtered in throughout the week, Hanes came out to shake their hands. "I truly wish them well. I met each and every one of them. They are great people," he told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in a July 24 interview.
In the first week, Hanes arguably gave out more media interviews than same-sex marriage licenses. Under repeated questioning, he consistently pointed to his oath of office, arguing that he promised to uphold both the Constitution and the laws of Pennsylvania. He believes those two conflict, and so, he says, "I made a choice."
Until the courts force him to stop, Hanes says, he’s sticking by it.
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