October 24, 2014

Supreme Court hears domestic partnership challenge

The Wisconsin Supreme Court (Photo: Andrew Beckett)

The Wisconsin Supreme Court (Photo: Andrew Beckett)

Whether or not Wisconsin’s domestic partnership registry is constitutional is now up to the State Supreme Court. Justices heard arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit claiming the registry violates a 2006 state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage or the creation of a similar status.

The lawsuit was filed by several board members of Wisconsin Family Action shortly after the registry was created in 2009. Their attorney, Austin Nimocks with the Alliance Defending Freedom, told justices Wednesday that the registry is unconstitutional because the requirements to form a same-sex domestic partnership mirror those for getting married. Nimocks argument centered largely on the fact that the registry has age, gender, and family-relationship restrictions, which are all similar to the requirements for marriage. “This case is not about benefits. This case is rather about chapter 770 mimicking marriage’s blueprint,” Nimocks said in court.

Attorney Christopher Clark of Lambda Legal represents several social rights groups that took over the defense of the registry. Clark countered in court that the registry is in no way similar to marriage, since it does not create a civil contract between two people that requires them to meet certain obligations and only offers a limited set of rights for the two partners. Couples who register receive around 40 protections, dealing primarily with property, inheritance, and medical care. Unlike a marriage, he pointed out, one partner can terminate their involvement in the registry at any time. Ending a marriage requires a divorce through the legal system.

Clark also argued that the challenge to the registry goes against what Wisconsin Family Action and other proponents of the gay marriage ban old the public when they were trying to get it passed in 2006. “The petitioners themselves, as well as the legislative sponsors of this amendment, repeatedly told legislators and voters that this amendment would allow the Legislature to do exactly what it did here.”

Justices posed several questions to the attorneys over the course of the hearing, including discussing the possibility of striking down just portions of the registry. While Nimocks admitted that lifting certain restrictions could address constitutional issues, he added that their goal is to have the entire registry struck down.

The court will release its decision at a later date.

AUDIO: Andrew Beckett reports (1:09)

Also on hand for Wednesday’s session were several same sex couples who have registered domestic partnerships since 2009.

Ann Kendzierski and Kathy Flores of Appleton have been together for seven years, and registered as domestic partners three years ago. Flores suffers from several health conditions, and she says striking down the registry could allow hospitals to bar Kendzierski from visiting her when she’s ill. Flores says “as a cancer survivor, as someone with M.S., aneurysms, we have put these in place…this registry and these rights have been tested for us. Before the registry, my partner was denied access to my hospital room.”

As of the end of 2012, there were 2,051 registered domestic partnerships in Wisconsin.