Walker fires attorney defending partner registry

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Gov. Scott Walker has fired the attorney defending Wisconsin’s domestic partner registry law against a suit filed on behalf of an anti-gay group.

The law, introduced by former Gov. Jim Doyle, gives registered same-sex couples 41 of the more than 200 benefits the state offers married couples – and none of the 1,138 federal marriage benefits.

But Julaine Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action, sued to overturn the law in 2009, charging that it violates a 2006 amendment to the state constitution banning legal arrangements that mirror marriage between same-sex partners.

Ironically Appling, who has never married or had children, lives with a longtime female companion in a home that the two own jointly in Watertown.

Doyle appointed Madison attorney Lester Pines to defend the registry law in court after Republican Attorney General J. B. Von Hollen declined to do so. Pines announced on March 22 that Walker terminated his firm, Cullen Weston Pines & Bach, as the state’s counsel in the case, which is pending in Dane County Circuit Court.

A Walker spokesman said the governor’s office “is still working to appoint a new counsel to the case.”

But Pines said it’s unlikely the Walker administration will take defending the registry seriously. “Gov. Walker is ideologically opposed to equal rights for gay and lesbian and transgendered people as is everyone in his administration as far as I can tell, and they will be probably want to take steps to ensure that gay and lesbian and transgendered people do not have equal rights,” Pines said.

Equality advocates anticipated Walker’s action and are poised to take over its defense. Katie Belanger, executive director of Fair Wisconsin, said the only thing surprising about Pines’ dismissal was that Walker waited so long.

“If anything, we were surprised that the change didn’t happen earlier,” Belanger said. “Regardless of the governor’s views on same-sex couples, it is in his purview to change counsel.”

In December 2010, Fair Wisconsin won legal standing to intervene in the case with Lambda Legal as chief counsel.

“Regardless of what the governor decides to do, we’re still in the case as the intervening party and … we get to be equal defendants,” Belanger said. “If the governor decided to step back from the case, we would still be there and we’d become the sole defendant.”

Belanger anticipates a decision in the case as soon as mid-year. It’s likely the decision will be appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

“We feel strongly that our defense is valid regardless of what the governor decides to do,” Belanger said.