Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell is readying his office for an increase in marriage license applications pending a court decision.
With U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb expected to rule soon on the constitutionality of Wisconsin's same-sex marriage ban, Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell is leaving nothing to chance.
If Crabb overturns the prohibition, McDonell expects a rush of same-sex couples seeking marriage licenses at the clerk's office. Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who is defending the state law, has asked Crabb to immediately block her own decision if she strikes down the ban. A higher court could also stay or reverse the ruling, so couples might try to marry quickly before any further decision is issued.
McDonell says he has been engaged in "massive planning" to make sure his office is prepared to handle the increased demand for licenses.
The ruling would hit during what is already the busy season at the clerk's office for marriage licenses, says McDonell, with 20 to 40 couples showing up on any given summer day. Fridays and Mondays are the busiest, he adds.
"So if we expect, based on some rough estimate, 200 to 300 couples coming within 24 hours of a ruling, we wouldn't be able to handle it in a traditional sense," he says. To fortify the ranks, McDonell is recruiting county employees and volunteers who, after being deputized and sworn in, would legally be able to issue marriage licenses.
Their main task would be to ensure that couples provide the required information, says McDonell. "Filling out the application isn't so hard. The tricky part is the documents being the right documents."
Applicants need a birth certificate, photo ID and proof of address, among other records. They also need to provide a wedding date and the name of the officiant who will be marrying them.
There is usually a six-day wait for the license, but applicants can pay an extra $25 on top of the $120 license fee to get the license immediately. Couples must marry within 30 days of receiving their license, but McDonell has also recruited Dane County court commissioners and judges who would be on hand to marry couples, free of charge, right after they obtain their licenses.
McDonell says he would extend hours at the clerk's office to meet demand and, if the ruling came out on a Friday, stay open over the weekend.
"I can't imagine we wouldn't be open into the night, with the extra couples we would have," he says.
Milwaukee County Clerk Joe Czarnezki is also readying his office in the event the marriage ban is overturned.
"We are preparing for a large number of applicants," he says. That includes training additional staff to accept marriage licenses, he says.
Applicants in Milwaukee will also be able to pay an additional $25 to waive the statutory waiting period for licenses. Czarnezki says it's impossible to estimate the number of couples who might apply for marriage licenses, but, like McDonell, he notes it's already the busy season for weddings.
"We're doing over 50 marriage licenses a day as it is," he says. "We expect we'll do three or four times that in the first day or two if the ruling comes down as expected and declares the ban unconstitutional."
Czarnezki has also made arrangements with the county's chief judge to have judges and commissioners "on standby" to perform wedding ceremonies: "We will do our best to accommodate all of our customers."
Supporters of marriage equality have had a good year. Federal judges have recently overturned same-sex marriage bans in Oregon and Pennsylvania. These decisions follow similar rulings in Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, Tennessee, Michigan and Idaho.
The decisions have all come after two key rulings last summer by the United States Supreme Court. In United States v. Windsor, the court struck down a central part of the Defense of Marriage Act and granted federal recognition to same-sex couples. In Hollingsworth v. Perry, the justices struck down California's marriage ban -- Proposition 8 -- on procedural grounds. Since these rulings, according to the Human Rights Campaign, "not a single state marriage ban has survived a federal court challenge."
In February, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn Wisconsin’s ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions. The lawsuit also seeks to strike down an obscure state law that makes it a crime for couples in Wisconsin to marry in another state if their union is not legal here.
Four couples are plaintiffs in the suit. Defendants include Van Hollen, Gov. Scott Walker, McDonell and Czarnezki. Both McDonell and Czarnezki have publicly stated their opposition to the state's marriage ban.
McDonell and Czarnezki have looked into potential complications for same-sex couples applying for marriage licenses. Hundreds of such couples have become domestic partners since the state created a domestic partner registry in 2009, and it's likely some of those would now apply for marriage licenses.
The clerks say that should not be a problem. "State law provides if you are currently in a domestic partnership and then get married... that domestic partnership is automatically dissolved," says Czarnezki. "If you currently have a state of Wisconsin certification of domestic partnership you do not need to terminate that in order to get married."
But the situation is murkier for couples who have married out of state. "It will depend on the language in the ruling," says McDonell. Czarnezki agrees: "Currently, Wisconsin does not recognize that marriage. In that instance, it will depend on what the judge says. The judge could order the state of Wisconsin to recognize those out-of-state marriages or she could say nothing."
McDonell and Czarnezki urge couples who intend to marry if the state ban is overturned to gather all required documents now. Previously married applicants, for instance, need to bring either a filed copy of the divorce decree or a certified death certificate, says Czarnezki. The divorce also needs to have been in effect for six months.
And if documents need to be secured from out-of-state governmental agencies, don't wait.
Says McDonell: "If they need a birth certificate from Alabama, right now is a good time to get it."