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Jefferson Clerk Moved by Law, Not Politics

Nola.com, Thursday, July 2, 2015

When Jefferson Parish became Louisiana’s first to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, it bucked its reputation as a conservative Republican stronghold. It also flew in the face of Gov. Bobby Jindal, the Republican presidential candidate who once represented part of Jefferson in Congress and who refused to accommodate same-sex marriage until forced by a court ruling Thursday (July 2).

Jefferson’s decision, by Clerk of Court Jon Gegenheimer, not only garnered national attention from The New York Times and National Public Radio but set off a chain reaction among other parishes. It was a monumental step for the neighbor of the more liberal New Orleans and ignited pride among many, as evidenced in social media.

“I am proud that I live in a parish that acts like it’s part of the USA! Looking like Jefferson is the voice of sanity in a backwards state. I love it,” said daparishdude, a commenter on NOLA.com.

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision Friday on same-sex marriage, Gegenheimer and his office’s attorney spent the weekend reviewing the lengthy ruling. Ultimately the call came down to two things, Gegenheimer said: the law and his oath of office.

“Being conservative means among other things, you respect the letter of the law,” Gegenheimer said, whose legal background includes constitutional law. “We looked at the opinion. It says in no uncertain terms that to deny marriage licenses to applicants of same-sex couples would be to violate the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, due process, equal protection.”

The Louisiana Clerks of Court Association had advised its members to delay dispersing marriage licenses for 25 days, until the period to apply for a rehearing on the high court decision expired. “But there was nothing in the opinion to suggest that there shouldn’t be immediate implementation of the court’s order,” Gegenheimer said. “It was up to us, independent of what the clerks association or anybody says, to abide by the court’s order based on our own analysis of it.”

In New Orleans, marriage licenses are issued by the Louisiana Office of Vital Records, and Jindal was holding off. As a result, same-sex couples flocked next door to Jefferson, where they were warmly greeted. Some expressed that they were treated poorly during inquiries elsewhere.

“We have a motto,” Gegenheimer said. “Public servants serving the public. We’re here to serve the public, follow the law and treat everybody with respect.”

A Republican, Gegenheimer has served as clerk of court since 1988. In that time, he has sought to transform the office into a national leader in technology.

He has won a number of awards for his work, including the G. Thomas Munsterman Award for Jury Innovation from the National Center for State Courts. He also was named public official of the year by the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials and Clerks.

In applying the law, Gegenheimer said it is critical to put aside personal feelings and look at issues dispassionately. Despite finding himself on the opposite side of Jindal, Gegenheimer said he thinks the governor understands the law is the law.

“Duty, first and foremost. The law is the law,” he said. “The Supreme Court has spoken. We have to act accordingly.”

To Read more Clerk News, click here.