March 25, 2014 at 5:41 pm

For a fleeting moment, four county clerks open doors to all

Martin Contreras, left, and Keith Orr celebrate after getting married at the Washtenaw County Building in Ann Arbor Saturday. (Mark Bialek / Special to The Detroit News)

Your local county clerk is most often seen as a bureaucrat — a keeper of records, vital statistics and precise office hours. But on Saturday, four county clerks in Michigan went a little bit rogue.

Clerks in Washtenaw, Oakland, Ingham, and Muskegon counties seized the moment on — gasp — a weekend. In three counties, they flung open the doors on Saturday morning to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples before a federal appeals court stopped the music that afternoon.

Muskegon County Clerk Nancy A. Waters took a batch of forms with her and issued marriage licenses at a nearby church, without opening the courthouse or paying staff.

No one had prepared for county clerk office hours on Saturday. These are offices that run 8:30 to 4:30, or 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.

When U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman issued his 5:06 p.m. Friday ruling that the state’s gay marriage ban violates the U.S. Constitution, 79 county clerks likely thought the way Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett did: “We were ready to rock and roll today (Monday) but we operated the normal way we do in this office. We are closed on Saturday.”

In Washtenaw County, the political pressure was clear — to open the doors. Once county Clerk Lawrence Kestenbaum realized the county commission and administrator would help with issues of security and cost, he moved ahead. “At that point, the issue became how could we not open?”

“It’s going to rank up there as one of the best days of my life,” Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown said Monday. She opened the clerk’s office Saturday morning for four hours of marriage licensing and officiating, personally presiding over 80 same-sex weddings, with a crew of volunteers and staff.

Brown had taken a special interest in the case, because she, as county clerk, was named as a defendant by plaintiffs Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer.

She refused to take the state’s side of the case, hired her own attorney and testified that in her belief the law discriminated against gays and lesbians.

All four clerks who issued licenses are Democrats, and their stance highlighted the political underpinnings of their position. The county clerk wields power and the office can be a stepping stone to higher political careers. U.S. State Rep. Candice Miller, Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land all served as county clerks.

But rarely does a county clerk have the opportunity to so visibly exercise official discretion and a sense of historical import at the same time.

“I don’t fault the counties that didn’t open,” Kestenbaum said. “Not many are nimble enough to call up employees and ask them to come in.” He got four out of eight staff members, who received comp time for their service. In Oakland, Brown said the county made money, taking in more from fees than the cost of staff.

These four county clerks changed official office hours. They improvised. Their reach and determination in those few hours changed hundreds of lives, likely forever.
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