Judge upholds Wisconsin’s partner registry

In a strongly worded ruling handed down today, a Dane County Circuit Court judge upheld the constitutionality of the state’s domestic partner registry.

The ruling came in a suit filed by the anti-gay group Wisconsin Family Action claiming that the registry law violates a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions in the state. Former Gov. Jim Doyle enacted the measure, which grants 41 legal protections to same-sex couples, including hospital visitation privileges and the right to take family medical leave to care for a sick or injured partner.

WFA argued that the registry created a relationship status “substantially similar to that of marriage,” which is prohibited under the 2006 constitutional ban adopted by voters. Judge Daniel R. Moeser disagreed.

“The (registry) does not recognize domestic partnership in a way that even remotely resembles how the state recognizes marriage,” Moeser wrote. “Moreover, domestic partners have far fewer legal rights, duties and liabilities in comparison to the legal rights, duties, and liabilities of spouses.”

Moeser said that besides providing only a few of the 200 rights afforded by marriage under state law, registered partnerships differ greatly from marriage in the way they’re legally established. For instance, either registered partner can terminate their relationship simply by informing the county clerk’s office, whereas divorce involves division of property, child custody arrangements and other complex legal ramifications.

“The legal status is very, very different and that’s a very crucial distinction,” said attorney Christopher Clark of Lambda Legal. He litigated the case on behalf of the advocacy group Fair Wisconsin and five same-sex couples who became the lead defendants in the case after Gov. Scott Walker decided not to defend the registry law.

Clark said he was pleased but not surprised by the decision.

“Obviously we’re thrilled, but I have been arguing all along that I did not think this was a close case,” Clark said. “I think this lawsuit bordered on the frivolous. There are lots of states now that have some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples that are not like marriage. To suggest this was substantially similar to marriage was absurd.”

In his ruling, Moeser noted that proponents of the 2006 ban on same-sex marriage had ensured voters it would not legally prohibit arrangements like the one they’re now objecting to, Clark said.

Clark described Moeser’s ruling as “well-reasoned and comprehensive,” which is important to the future of the case. WFA has 45 days to appeal Moeser’s decision, which executive director Julaine Appling says the group plans to do – all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Ironically Appling lives with a longtime female companion in a home the two own jointly in Watertown. Neither has ever married.

Fair Wisconsin will continue fighting for the registry, vowed executive director Katie Belanger.

“When we intervened in this case last year, we knew that it could be for several years and we are prepared,” she said. “In the meantime, we are celebrating our victory with a very strong court decision. It’s definitely the strongest decision we could have hoped for.”

Out state Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, said he applauded the decision “for rejecting this mean-spirited and unjust attack on same-sex couples.”

“Hopefully, this will put the fears of not being able to visit your loved one in the hospital to rest,” Pocan said. “Today, I call on Republicans to finally focus on job creation rather than divisive social policies that only result in further disenfranchising people.”