MADISON — A Dane County judge ruled Monday that the state’s Domestic Partner Registry does not violate the state Constitution.
In a 53-page decision, Circuit Court Judge Daniel Moeser said the registry, which went into effect Aug. 1, 2009, does not violate the Marriage Amendment to the state’s Constitution passed in 2006.
“This ruling helps us continue to take care of each other in the way that we do every single day,” said Kathy Flores, 44, of Appleton. Flores and her partner, Ann Kendzierski, are among five same-sex couples who joined Fair Wisconsin, the state’s largest gay rights group, in intervening in a lawsuit challenging the registry brought by members of Wisconsin Family Action.
But Julaine Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action, said, “This is just the first step in a long process.“
Appling said the group plans to appeal and has “quite a road” ahead of them. “We’ll defend the Constitution and the will of the people,” she said, adding that nearly 60 percent of people voted that only a marriage between one man and one woman should be valid or recognized as a marriage in the state. “We’re always surprised when a court doesn’t uphold the Constitution.“
Attorneys who defended former Gov. Jim Doyle and other parties in the lawsuit, however, said Moeser made it clear in his ruling that it was not a close call.
Chicago attorney Christopher Clark of Lambda Legal, who represented Fair Wisconsin and the five couples who intervened in the case, said the registry “creates a very limited set of rights for same-sex couples” that is not “substantially similar” to marriage between a man and woman. “This is a far cry from marriage in many significant respects.“
Among the distinctions, Clark said, are differences in who can marry and who can join the Domestic Partner Registry, and differences in how couples end a marriage versus a domestic partnership.
Another key factor in the ruling, he said, was assertions during the campaign before the referendum by proponents of the Marriage Amendment, including Wisconsin Family Action, that it would not prohibit the kinds of benefits the registry provides.
“There was an element, I think, of hypocrisy in the lawsuit.“
The registry, passed by a Democrat-controlled Legislature, grants same-sex couples protections such as the right to visit each other in hospitals, make end-of-life decisions and inherit each other’s property.
Flores, who has multiple sclerosis, said in the past few years, she has undergone surgery for two aneurisms and treatment for cancer. While undergoing a biopsy, she said, a nurse did not want to allow her partner to remain with her, and a doctor had to intervene.
“It was scary time,” she said, adding, “really, for us, it’s about taking care of each other during these difficult health times, and if I die, having my end-of-life wishes honored.“
While Wisconsin’s Domestic Partner Registry provides fewer rights for same-sex couples than similar measures in other states, Clark said, there is a movement nationally toward protecting people’s relationships and the families they create.
“Most people don’t oppose this sort of legal protection regardless of how they feel about same-sex marriage,” he said. “There’s a tradition in Wisconsin of fairness and equality and doing the right thing. I think this decision is consistent with that.“
Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen had refused to defend the registry, saying it was unconstitutional.
Doyle, a Democrat, had appointed private attorneys to defend the law in 2009. But Republican Gov. Scott Walker fired those attorneys in March and told the judge two months later that he wanted to stop defending the registry in court because he believed it was unconstitutional.
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“Why would you take that little protection away from same-sex couples?” asked Madison attorney Lester Pines, one of the attorneys hired by Doyle and fired by Walker. The only answer to that question, Pines said, is “that you have a problem with gay and lesbian people.“