Tag Archives: Wisconsin domestic partner registry

Walker drops registry defense

Gov. Scott Walker will not defend the state’s domestic partner registry law against a suit filed by the anti-gay organization Wisconsin Family Action, the governor’s office announced May 13.

The governor filed a motion in court seeking either to withdraw from the case or to amend his administration’s position to say the registry law is unconstitutional.

The governor’s move, which was anticipated, comes at a time when right-wing religious activists have blasted the White House for dropping its defense of the federal Defense of Marriage Act because the administration believes portions of that law are unconstitutional. Right-wing Christians have also condemned former Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and current Gov. Jerry Brown for refusing to defend their state’s Proposition 8, a gay-marriage ban enacted by voters, in federal court.

But in Wisconsin, anti-gay activists urged the governor not to defend the law.

News that Walker is dropping the state’s defense of the registry comes just over a month after he fired the attorney defending it in court. 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.

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.

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

Equality advocates anticipated Walker’s action and are poised to take over its defense. In December 2010, the LGBT advocacy group Fair Wisconsin won legal standing to intervene in the case with Lambda Legal as chief counsel.

“The governor’s decision highlights why Fair Wisconsin and Lambda Legal intervened in this matter,” said Christopher Clark, senior staff attorney in Lambda Legal’s Midwest regional office in Chicago. “The domestic partnership law is plainly constitutional.”

“The limited protections provided by domestic partnerships are essential in allowing committed same-sex couples to care for each other in times of need,” said Katie Belanger, executive director of Fair Wisconsin. “Fair Wisconsin will continue to fight for the more than 1,700 couples who have already registered as domestic partners, and for those who may do so in the future.”

Wis. Republicans already veering into social issues

Leaders of the new Republican majority in the Wisconsin Legislature are quietly twisting arms to try to get their members to focus solely on measures to create jobs and boost the economy when they assume power in two months.

But some Republicans, whose attempts to act on social issues failed under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle the past eight years, say they intend to press ahead to legalize concealed weapons, pass tough new immigration restrictions, and eliminate domestic partner benefits and the state’s domestic partner registry.

The different perspectives and priorities are starting to emerge as the party transitions from its triumphant midterm election campaign, in which it won the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature, to the much different challenge of turning ideas into laws.

Already, the Republicans are facing competing pressures over whether to try to have a wide-ranging impact or to pursue a more cautious and limited agenda.

Soon-to-be Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, has been pressing members in private calls to focus on the economic legislation and put off everything else.

“I’m a little nervous” about the talk about abortion legislation and other issues, said Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, a 20-year veteran of the Assembly. “I’m going to do what I can to try to keep us focused.”

Newly elected state Rep. Kathy Bernier, a Republican from Lake Hallie who received a call from Suder, said she was also a “little bit” worried about the other issues that were prominent in the campaign.

Republican leaders believe they have strong base of support for action on the economy. A survey by St. Norbert College showed that 73 percent of respondents said jobs, economy, budget and debt were the most important issues facing the state. Only 2 percent named immigration and just 1 percent said abortion.

Incoming Republican Gov. Scott Walker has called for quick passage of proposals to spur job creation, including cutting taxes on small businesses, cutting taxes on Health Savings Accounts and reforming the state Department of Commerce.

But the GOP includes fervent and loyal social conservatives who helped deliver the party’s dramatic victory in November and now expect action on issues that have already passed in other Republican-controlled states.

Republican state Rep. Don Pridemore said he plans on introducing a bill similar to the controversial new law in Arizona that would crack down on illegal immigration. Pridemore’s bill would require that people suspected of crimes would have to prove they’re in the country legally or be turned over to federal immigration authorities.

The idea has been denounced by immigrant-rights groups and would prompt a legislative battle. But Pridemore said the bill could be debated without becoming a distraction.

Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, who will be majority leader in January, declared on election night that the first bill he intends to see passed would require voters to show photo identification at the polls as a way to stop voter fraud. Democrats have long blocked it, arguing it suppresses turnout. Other Republican lawmakers have said they intend to impose more restrictions on abortions, legalize concealed weapons and repeal a recently enacted law that extends benefits to domestic partners of gay state workers..

It will only be a few months before the Legislature turns to non-economic issues, said Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend.

“We’re not going to spend the next 18 months doing nothing but economic issues,” Grothman said. “That would be a slap in the face to a large share of the electorate.”

Former Gov. Tommy Thompson, a Republican who served 14 years, said navigating the agenda will be precarious unless the Legislature successfully enacts a substantial new economic program.

“If they can’t deliver there will be hell to pay in 2012,” he said before the election.

Kaufert said he also feared voters would have little patience if his colleagues get bogged down.

“The danger is the citizens of the state will just say we’ll clean house again and we’re going to keep doing it until we get it right,” he said.

Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus said the economy won’t prevent the Legislature from acting on other priorities. “It doesn’t mean we have to exclude tackling every other issue facing the voters of Wisconsin,” he said. “You can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Democrats are encouraged by the prospect of Republicans getting entangled in social issues that are highly contentious and have less public support.

The Republican focus on jobs and the economy will last “about 20 seconds,” said Mordecai Lee, a former Democratic state lawmaker and currently a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee political science professor.

“They ran on jobs and the economy,” said Democratic state Rep. Mark Pocan of Madison. “Now if we get a bait and switch to a social issues agenda, that would not be a very popular move.”

Walker, who ran with Tea Party support, promised on the campaign trail to sign an Arizona-style immigration law and to ban embryonic stem cell research, groundbreaking work that was pioneered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Since the election, Walker’s rhetoric has focused on his pledge that with Republicans back in control, “Wisconsin is open for business.” His spokesman, Cullen Werwie, said Walker will review bills not related to the economy on a case by case basis, but his focus remains on his jobs agenda.

Suit seeks to overturn registry

A Christian-right group is suing to overturn Wisconsin’s domestic partner registry on the grounds that it violates the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and any arrangement “substantially similar” to marriage.

Wisconsin Family Action filed suit in Dane County Circuit Court on Aug. 20, contending that the registry creates a legal status that is substantially similar to that of marriage. The WFA was also behind the 2006 voter referendum that resulted in the constitutional ban.

Gov. Jim Doyle proposed the registry as a means of granting same-sex couples basic legal rights, including the right to visit each other in hospitals, make end-of-life decisions and inherit each other’s property. The Democratic-controlled Legislature approved the registry and it went into effect in August 2009.

As of the beginning of August, 1,541 couples had signed up.

“A reasonable person observing this registry would easily conclude that it is intended to mirror marriage,” Julaine Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action, said in a statement. “It borrows the requirements and eligibility standards for marriage, even to the point of requiring that the price of the registry certificate be the same as for a marriage license.”

But Katie Belanger, executive director of Fair Wisconsin, countered that the registry’s 43 benefits do not compare in scope with the 200 rights that come with marriage under state law. “These are the most basic, critical things that couples need to have to take care of one another,” she said.

The current lawsuit is the second filed by WFA against the registry. In July 2009, the group tried but ultimately failed to take its case directly to the Supreme Court, forcing WFA to re-file at the circuit court level.

Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen refused to defend the registry last year, forcing the state to hire an independent counsel to represent the state. A spokesman for Van Hollen said the attorney general would not represent the registry in this case either.

Van Hollen is up for re-election in November, when he faces Democrat Scott Hassett at the polls.

Madison attorney Lester Pines, who represented the registry last year, will probably do so again, according to sources close to the case. The ACLU of Wisconsin, which supported the defense in 2009 is also “ready to proceed to join the case,” said executive director Christopher Ahmuty.

WFA is represented by the Alliance Defense Fund. The plaintiffs include WFA board members Jo Egelhoff, Jerry Hiller, Richard Kessenich and E. Lee Webster. They claim the registry harms them because it costs taxpayer money to administer.

“They can’t produce anybody whose marriage has been harmed (by the registry),” Ahmuty said. “You’ve got to come to the conclusion that they’re doing this because they just don’t want domestic relationships recognized in any form. This case is a pretty clear example that they’re not so much animated by the desire to protect marriage as animus, dislike or bias toward LGBT people, because (the registry is) so far from marriage.”

“While the Wisconsin Family Action and the Alliance Defense Fund will attempt to compare the domestic partnership registry to the legal definition of marriage,” Ahmuty continued, “same-sex couples will seek to demonstrate a factual record of how the protections offered by the registry are quite limited and in no way violate the marriage ban. … That’s just ludicrous.”

In a separate case, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling in June that upheld the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage and civil unions. But that ruling did not affect the registry.

– AP contributed to this story

Wisconsin registry celebrates first anniversary

Tamara Packard (left) and Renee Herber leave the Dane County Clerk’s Office after signing up for Wisconsin’s domestic partner registry on the first day it went into effect – Aug. 3, 2009. Fair Wisconsin celebrated the registry’s one-year anniversary with an Aug. 3 party at Shamrock Bar, 117 W. Main St., in Madison. “Although domestic partnerships fall short of full equality, they mark an important shift in the direction of our state,” said Fair Wisconsin executive director Katie Belanger. “Wisconsin has resumed its rightful place at the forefront of the quest for fairness.”