Gay Wedding Exchanging Rings

A Schuylkill County official, who tried to step in and appeal the historic decision issued in May allowing for same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, has had her lawsuit thrown out of court by the Third Circuit.

In a two-sentence order on procedural grounds, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit gave force to the opinion of U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III of the Middle District of Pennsylvania, who had rejected the clerk’s attempt to intervene in the case after Gov. Tom Corbett decided not to appeal the initial ruling, also issued by Jones.

Two weeks ago, Jones tossed out Register of Wills Theresa Santai-Gaffney’s motion to intervene in the case that saw Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriages ruled unconstitutional, calling it a “contrived legal argument.”

“For essentially the reasons set forth in the opinion of the district court, the order denying the motion to intervene is summarily affirmed and the appeal is dismissed. Appellant’s motion for stay pending appeal is dismissed as moot,” Third Circuit Judge Patty Shwartz said on behalf of the three-judge panel, which included Judges Kent A. Jordan and Julio M. Fuentes.

Those two sentences were the whole of the order.

“Judge Jones had it absolutely correct,” said Mark Aronchick of Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller, who had been on the team representing the couples who challenged the state’s law banning same-sex marriage.

“The Third Circuit has now said so in very clear terms,” Aronchick said.

He said the state, which had defended the marriage restriction, has been proceeding smoothly in following Jones’ May decision knocking down the law.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal group based in Arizona that has entered four lawyers on the appeals court docket for the clerk, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Santai-Gaffney, the Schuylkill County clerk of Orphans’ Court and register of wills, had filed a motion to intervene in Whitewood v. Wolf, the case in which Jones declared Pennsylvania’s ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional and that the law should be discarded to “the ash heap of history.”

Since Corbett decided not to appeal, Santai-Gaffney petitioned the federal court to intervene and appeal Jones’ ruling to the Third Circuit and to stay his decision pending her proposed appeal.

Jones denied the request to intervene and said in light of that, he didn’t need to address her motion to stay.

Santai-Gaffney had argued her “rights and duties” as someone who discharges marriage-related duties and enforces marriage laws were affected when Jones threw out Pennsylvania’s same-sex marriage ban.

But Jones said Santai-Gaffney had no interest in the outcome of the case and that she “serves a ministerial role in which she may exercise no independent judgment relative to issuing marriage licenses.”

“There is nothing remotely ambiguous about how Santai-Gaffney must perform her duties relative to issuing marriage licenses,” Jones said in his order. “For her to represent otherwise is wholly disingenuous. At bottom, we have before us a contrived legal argument by a private citizen who seeks to accomplish what the chief executive of the commonwealth, in his wisdom, has declined to do.”

Jones said while he respected Santai-Gaffney’s “deep personal disagreement” with his decision to strike down the ban, “we lament that she has used her office as a platform to file the motion we dispose of today.”

Saranac Hale Spencer can be contacted at 215-557-2449 or Follow her on Twitter @SSpencerTLI.