MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin's domestic partnership registry is constitutional, a state appeals court ruled in a decision released Friday that marks a major victory for the state's largest gay rights group.
The 4th District Court of Appeals' opinion concluded that voters didn't intend to prohibit the creation of the registry when they amended the Wisconsin Constitution to ban gay marriage, adding that domestic partnerships carry substantially fewer rights and obligations than married couples enjoy.
Democratic lawmakers created the registry in 2009. Same-sex couples who join it are afforded a host of legal rights, including the right to visit each other in hospitals and make end-of-life decisions for one another. About 1,800 couples were on the registry at the end of 2011, according to the latest data from the state Department of Health Services.
Members of the conservative group Wisconsin Family Action filed a lawsuit in 2010 alleging the registry bestowed a legal status substantially similar to marriage to same-sex couples. The group argued that violates the Wisconsin Constitution's ban on gay marriage.
Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen refused to defend the registry, declaring it was clearly unconstitutional. Former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, appointed private attorneys to defend it, but Republican Gov. Scott Walker fired them after he took office in 2011 because he, too, believed the registry was unconstitutional.
Fair Wisconsin, the state's largest gay rights group, stepped into the case to defend the registry. Dane County Circuit Judge Daniel Moeser ruled last summer that the registry was constitutional, finding it conveys a status that's not identical or substantially similar to marriage.
The Wisconsin Family Action members appealed and the 4th District tried to send the case directly to the state Supreme Court this past July, calling it a novel constitutional issue with statewide significance. The high court refused to hear it and instead sent it back to the appellate level.
Greg Scott, an attorney for the Wisconsin Family Action members, said in an email to The Associated Press Friday he hadn't seen the opinion yet. A telephone message was left for Brian Butler, an attorney for Fair Wisconsin, seeking comment.