A state appeals court has ruled Wisconsin's domestic partner registry constitutional.
Julaine Appling, executive director of Wisconsin Family Action, a socially conservative group that opposes homosexuality, challenged the registry on the grounds that it violated the state's 2006 constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Appling could not be reached Friday to determine whether she intends to ask the Wisconsin Supreme Court to review the case.
Appling and her co-plaintiffs tried to take the case directly to the Supreme Court after former Dane County Judge Daniel Moeser in June 2011 ruled the registry was constitutional. But the Supreme Court refused to hear it and sent it back to the appellate level.
Katie Belanger, executive director of Fair Wisconsin, a defendant in the case, called the appellate ruling a "victory for equality and a victory for the more than 2,000 couples that have registered as domestic couples around the state. It's another signal that this legislation is a very basic common sense approach to providing limited legal protections to gay and lesbian couples."
Belanger says her group anticipates that the decision will be appealed. Lambda Legal, which represents Fair Wisconsin, "is prepared to continue its legal defense all the way to the Supreme Court."
If the Supreme Court again declines to rule on the matter, the Appeals Court decision would be the final word.
The three-court Appeals panel, composed of Judges Paul Lundsten, Paul Higginbotham and Kitty K. Brennan, ruled that Appling and other plaintiffs did not convince the court that the domestic registry creates a "legal status" that is "substantially similar to that of marriage."
The judges also ruled that Appling failed to show, through the language of the marriage amendment and other "voter-intent evidence," that voters who approved Wisconsin's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage intended to also prohibit the kind of domestic partnership created by the Legislature.
"We conclude that Appling falls far short of meeting her burden," the judges wrote. "The same-sex domestic partnerships created by the Legislature are substantially different than marriages because, among other differences, domestic partnerships carry with them substantially fewer rights and obligations than those enjoyed by and imposed on married couples."
After joining the state's domestic partner registry, same-sex couples are granted limited rights and benefits, including the right to inherit each other's assets when a partner dies and to visit each other in the hospital.
The registry was approved in 2009 by the Democratic-controlled Legislature and signed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. When Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, a Republican, refused to defend the registry, Doyle hired a private law firm to do so.
Gov. Scott Walker fired the law firm in March 2011 and also asked Moeser to allow the state to withdraw its support of the law and to declare it unconstitutional.
When the state pulled out of the case, Fair Wisconsin, the state's largest gay rights group, remained as a defendant along with five same-sex couples. Lambda Legal represents Fair Wisconsin and the couples.