In 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case called Obergefell v. Hodges, that same-sex couples had the constitutional right to be married. It was a landmark decision that ended years of legal battles all across the United States. One of the interesting forerunners of Obergefell is the Wisconsin Domestic Partner Registry. This registry made Wisconsin an early pioneer in rights for same-sex couples, but was highly controversial and led to a lengthy lawsuit knows as Appling v. Walker, that took years to go through the courts in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin and Same Sex Couples
Wisconsin has a complicated history when it comes to dealing with the rights of same-sex couple. Wisconsin, like many other Midwest states, had passed legislation making it illegal for same-sex couple to be married. In Wisconsin, this law came in the form of a voter approved state constitutional amendment.
But, unlike any other Midwest state, Wisconsin also passed the Domestic Partnership Registry in 2009.
What the Wisconsin Domestic Partner Registry Did
The Domestic Partner Registry gave same sex couples some degree of legal protection, even though they could not legally be married. The registry allowed any couple, including same sex couples, to register as domestic partners. Once registered, couples were able to:
• Inherit property from each other in the event of the death of a partner, even without a will
• Transfer real estate between partners tax free
• Enjoy the presumption of joint tenancy in real estate transactions
• Qualify for family medical leave for a sick or dying partner
• Enjoy hospital visiting rights
• Have the right to sue for wrongful death damages
• Receive worker’s compensation death benefits from qualifying partner
• Authorize organ donation on partner’s behalf
• Admit incapacitated partner to health care facilities
Appling v. Walker—Efforts to Stop the Registry
While many people were thrilled with the registry, many others opposed it. Almost immediately after the state legislature created the Domestic Partner Registry, a lawsuit was filed to stop it. The lawsuit was originally field against outgoing governor Jim Doyle, who had signed the registry into law. It was filed by Julaine Appling, the president of a group called Wisconsin Family Action.
The lawsuit claimed that the registry was unconstitutional. The Wisconsin State Attorney General refused to defend the registry in court. Governor Doyle hired a private law firm to defend the state in the lawsuit.
Originally, Appling’s attorneys asked the Wisconsin State Supreme Court to hear the case without requiring that it go through the lower courts first. The court rejected this plea and the case started in the Dane County Circuit Court in 2010 instead.
Appling’s main argument was that the registry was really the same thing as marriage and that same sex marriage was made explicitly illegal by the state constitution. In support of this argument Appling noted that it created a new legal status for domestic partners that did not exist before and that the requirements for obtaining a domestic partnership certificate were the same as the ones for obtaining a marriage certificate. Appling also noted that the fees were the same and that the benefits were substantially similar.
Lengthy Court Battle
The case was not decided by the district court until June 20, 2011. By that time Governor Walker had been elected to replace Doyle. Walker did not support the registry. The case was changed to Appling v. Walker. Dane County Judge Dan Moeser ruled against Appling, finding that the way the state recognized domestic partnerships was not remotely like the way it recognized marriages.
Appling appealed and on December 21, 2012, the District 4 Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Moeser’s decision.
Appling then appealed to the State Supreme Court, where Appling had originally wanted the case heard. However, the court ruled unanimously that the registry was constitutional on July 31, 2014, some five years after the original registry controversy.
The court found that the amendment to the state constitution only dealt with marriage, and was not a complete bar from the legislature providing rights to same sex couples. The court also noted again that the registry was not the same as marriage.
The Domestic Partner Registry was a victory for same sex couples. However, with the Supreme Court case of Obergefell v. Hodges becoming the law of the land a little more than a year after the final victory in Appling v. Walker, meant that there was not as pressing a need for the registry. The state of Wisconsin terminated the registry as of April 1, 2018.