Montgomery County Register of Wills D. Bruce Hanes, 66, has become a legend of sorts for his recent decision to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in spite of a state law that bans the practice.
His decision has brought on a mix of praise from marriage equality activists who support the decision and scrutiny from state officials who today filed a lawsuit against him demanding that he stop issuing the licenses. But before he became known as the rebel Montgomery County Register of Wills, Hanes was a lot of things; a rebel wasn’t necessarily one of them.
Hanes, a 30 year resident of Montgomery County, was elected as Montgomery County’s first democratic Register of Wills and Clerk of Orphan’s Court in 2007 and was re-elected for the same office in 2011.
Prior to his time as Register of Wills, he followed the somewhat typical path of an aspiring law professional. A graduate of Temple University’s School of Law, Hanes briefly served as a real estate law teacher at Temple’s Real Estate Institute. He also served as an Assistant Attorney General for the Pennsylvania Department of Justice before starting his own private practice, D. Bruce Hanes and Associates, where he spent nearly 40 years practicing civil litigation, wills, estates, and real estate law.
Friends of Hanes say he is known for being active in the Cheltenham community. He once served as co-chair of the Cheltenham Democratic Committee and spent eight years as a member of Temple University’s Lutheran Episcopal Campus Ministry (LECM).
Former co-chair of the LECM board and friend of Hanes Penny Cutler called him a faithful member of the ministry, who helped with fundraisers, programs, and outreach to students.
“I recruited him to the board and he was just an excellent idea man, and always had good ideas. He loved the idea of campus ministry. He worked hard and he was a good enthusiastic member,” Cutler said.
Hanes is a father of two daughters, ages 34 and 31, and has been married to his wife Rosemary for 42 years. Hanes says he is very family oriented. When asked if marriage is important to him, he simply replied, “I’ve been with the same woman, happily, for 42 years, what kind of conclusion can you draw from that?”
Aside from his apparent commitment to his own marriage, in the past, Hanes has also been accommodating to others seeking to be married.
In 2011, Hanes kept his office open late on Valentine's Day to accommodate couples that may have wanted to get a marriage license after office hours. It’s a practice he said he intends to continue as long as it’s feasible for his staff to do so.
“We have weird hours; we close at 4:15. So, I thought it would be easier if people could come after they got off of work. We kept the office open until 5:15 or so,” he said. “I intended to keep doing that, but for whatever reason it didn’t work out last year. But the point was to make the office more accessible to individuals, especially for people who want to get married.”
A Rebel is born
Over the years, Hanes had only ever found himself the subject of news when he was running in the election for his row officer seat in Montgomery County.
That all changed on July 23, when Hanes name began appearing in the media after he announced his decision to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite a state law that defines marriage as a civil contract between one man and one woman; making his action illegal. But he says the publicity didn’t start with him, it started with one couple’s simple desire to marry and their request to his office to acknowledge their union.
“Remember, I didn’t start this. This was not an issue with my office until recently, because believe it or not, since I was sworn in as the Register of Wills, not one same-sex couple had come forward and asked for a marriage license,” Hanes said.
When a couple, two female doctors in their 40s, contacted Hanes about applying for a marriage license last week, he says he consulted his solicitor Michael Clarke before deciding to approve the couple’s application.
“I spent a lot of time with my solicitor, essentially putting together a response and the response was basically to do what I believe the Constitution compels me to do,” he said.
Cutler says she and other democrats in Cheltenham are very supportive of Hanes decision.
“I personally was thrilled because I think it’s the right thing to do. I think we just think it’s the right thing to do because we don’t understand why if two people love each other they shouldn’t be able to be married to each other. He’s always been a good liberal person,” Cutler said.
Despite support from friends Hanes now finds himself being sued by The Pennsylvania Department of Health. Earlier today, the Department issued a writ of mandamus ordering Hanes to “perform his duties under the Pennsylvania Marriage Law’s definition of the term marriage as a civil contract by which one man and one woman take each other for husband and wife.”
The writ accuses Hanes of violating the state’s Marriage Law and causing “untold harm to the public,” and orders that he “immediately cease and desist from issuing marriage licenses to individuals of the same gender.”
Registers of Wills that have decided not to issue licenses to same-sex couples have found themselves party to a separate lawsuit.
After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act last month, the American Civil Liberties Union challenged Pennsylvania's marriage law by filing a suit on behalf of 12 same-sex couples seeking to be married. The suit, Whitewood v. Corbett, names Bucks County Register of Wills Donald Petrille, Jr. and Washington County Register of Wills Mary Jo Pokins as co-defendants in the case for refusing to issue marriage licenses to two same-sex couples.
Though he has faced some backlash, and now faces a legal action against him, Hanes says he tries to ignore any negativity.
“I’m getting a lot of positive feedback. The bad stuff, I really don’t pay that much attention to it; it’s a situation where people have a right to express themselves. I just think it’s important for people to know that I’m not doing anything based upon my opinion; I think it’s an equal privilege issue,” he said.
Looking to the future
Hanes is also a U.S. Army veteran, having served as a translator at the National Security Agency, and an amateur Civil War historian.
With his background and his recent tide-changing decision on same-sex marriage, some might assume Hanes would have his eyes on a higher political seat. But Hanes says he’s been the Register of Wills for the past five years, and for now, that’s where he plans to stay.
“I have no political aspirations beyond my current political job. I served one term and then I was reelected. I guess I may seek a third term,” he said.
As for the suit filed against him in court today, on advice of his counsel, Hanes said he could not make any further comments.