Two years ago,
Eric Affholter lost his job leading the St. Louis Public Defender's Office. This past year, he had his license to practice law in Florida suspended. And today, he's a felon, living neither in St. Louis nor with his family in Pompano Beach. Rather, he's in Peru, the native country of the painter who is his partner, Pedro Cerna-Rojas.
The two men are casualties in the American conflict over gay marriage. Roughly five years ago, Cerna-Rojas' visa was due to expire, and the couple had to make a hard choice about how they would continue their relationship. Ultimately, the men decided to stage a sham marriage between Cerna-Rojas and a mutual female friend, securing the Peruvian's right to stay in the States. Someone -- Affholter suspects a person who wanted change at the Public Defender's Office -- reported the widely known arrangement to federal prosecutors, who made an easy case against Affholter for marriage fraud, a felony.
"The whole process has been making choices about what I was willing to give up," Affholter told Juice yesterday, in a phone call from Peru.
"I lost pretty much all of my professional life," Affholter says of the case. But that wasn't even the hardest part. Although Affholter received leniency from the judge, who sentenced him to probation rather than six months' imprisonment, it still meant the couple had to live on separate continents.
"Losing Pedro to Peru was difficult," says Affholter. "While I was under probation, I couldn't visit him."
Now he misses living in the U.S., where he has friends and family. And he misses practicing law. But Affholter recently became eligible to have his license reinstated in Missouri. The license in Florida will be available in a little more than a year. He plans to return to law, perhaps as a criminal defense attorney.
"Having worked in the public defender's office, criminal defense is a passion of mine," he says. He hasn't decided whether he'll head to Missouri, Florida, or somewhere else.
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Affholter's case stirred up the gay rights community in St. Louis, but leading advocates have shied away from using Affholter's story to illustrate the need to give same-sex partnerships the same legal protection as marriage. "Organizations wanted to steer away from the situation, because they say it's bad publicity," he explains. "It's a case of somebody breaking the law, and that's not helping the cause."
If those organizations change their minds, says Affholter, "I would definitely participate in that."
So he has plans for a personal crusade. With a chuckle, Affholter says, "I do plan to seek a presidential pardon" for his conviction of marriage fraud. "Given the president's position on gay rights and the facts of the case, I think I have a chance."
For more on Affholter and Cerna-Rojas, here's a 2007 article from an independent paper in St. Louis, Vital Voice.