Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Politics

Carlton: Gay marriage not court clerk's first rodeo

On gay marriage, we are a state on the brink of something inevitable, with our unlikeliest elected officials in the thick of it.

A federal judge struck down Florida's ban on same-sex marriage, then stayed his decision until after Jan. 5. So now everyone's in a scramble: Did his ruling apply only in the rural Panhandle county where one of the couples challenging the ban lives? If court clerks in other counties issue marriage licenses to gay couples beginning Jan. 6, could they face criminal prosecution? Seriously?

And even with all this, doesn't it feel like Florida is finally coming around to the idea that grownups should get to marry who they want?

All of which makes it a pretty interesting time to be a clerk of the circuit court, a job usually more about keeping records than making history.

At 85, Hillsborough's Pat Frank is getting ready for what's next. It is not, as they say, her first rodeo, Frank having been the first female student at Georgetown Law School, a school board member, a county commissioner, a state senator who championed the ERA and an active Democrat.

Like her clerk counterpart in Pinellas, Frank won't issue same-sex marriage licenses unless it's made clear that it is legal for her to do so. That federal judge has been asked to clarify what he intended.

But eventually, there will be much to do. Frank already set about fixing the forms listing a man and a woman as the only options, except this is government, with layers of bureaucracy strictly required. The Bureau of Vital Statistics said there was a process for such things that could take a long time.

"They suggest we use their old forms," Frank said. "If the couples want to mark it out and put what they want, I'm not going to object to that."

She's thinking about the logistics of change, too: If the legalities are made clear and a whole lot of people show up to get hitched Jan. 6, she doesn't want them jammed into the small area where such business is currently carried out. So she applied to use the nearby Joe Chillura Courthouse Square park. It is a movie-perfect city square in which to make history.

"Just trying to plan ahead," she said.

A clerk job is a good one for a longtime politician to settle into, and certain names inevitably come up in political gossip about who's eyeing Frank's seat, particularly if she retires in 2016. (She demurs on answering, saying she's "not unmindful" of her age, but will evaluate as the time comes.)

This current hurdle on the way to gay marriage involves lawyers who advised Florida's clerks that the ruling only applies to the Washington County clerk, and gay-rights advocates who strongly disagree. How odd, to imagine court clerks as pioneers — or this accomplished octogenarian under arrest. The state attorney of Orange and Osceola counties and the one in Palm Beach have said they would not prosecute such cases. A Hillsborough state attorney's spokesman said it would be premature to say, given the still-moving legal parts.

Frank says she would willingly face charges and fines, but she worries she would be suspended and Gov. Rick Scott would then appoint a replacement — perhaps one of those rumored Republican names. Frank says she still has much work to do.

And she'll be ready for change in a law that, in its current state, is simply not fair.

"That's the law," she says. "But it's not justice."

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