Friday, October 25, 2013

JS: Wis State Supreme Court hints it may strike down part of domestic partnership law

Madison — The Wisconsin Supreme Court raised the prospect Wednesday of striking down part — but not all — of a law that gives same-sex couples some of the rights of those who are married.

In hearing arguments on the case, the seven justices did not hint how they might ultimately rule, but they openly debated the idea of tweaking the law rather than upholding it or striking down the whole law.

The court is expected to issue a decision by next summer on whether the domestic partnership law violates the Wisconsin Constitution's ban on gay marriage and civil unions.

The ruling will determine whether gay couples in Wisconsin can retain hospital visiting rights and other benefits. Currently, 2,300 couples have signed domestic partnership registries.

Early on, some of those couples, including Kathy Flores and Ann Kendzierski of Appleton, intervened in the case. Flores and Kendzierski have been a couple for seven years and signed up as domestic partners on a county registry in 2009.

Flores, who has multiple sclerosis and is a cancer survivor, told reporters after the arguments that the protections under the registry have been essential to ensuring her partner could see her when she was in the hospital.

"This isn't similar to marriage," Flores said of domestic partnerships. "We get the basic dignity of being able to take care of each other."

But Austin Nimocks, an attorney for the plaintiffs, argued domestic partnerships mirror marriages and thus aren't allowed under a 2006 amendment to the state constitution that bans gay marriage and any "legal status identical or substantially similar to marriage."

What makes the partnerships unconstitutional are not the benefits that are given but the legal status they confer on same-sex couples, he said. If gay couples were able to retain that legal status, legislators in the future could change the law to give them relationships that were "one benefit short of marriage," he contended.

The Wisconsin justices are considering the case just four months after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act that barred married gay couples from receiving federal benefits.

Wisconsin's high court is not considering the broader issue of whether same-sex couples can marry here. Gay couples in Wisconsin would not get that chance unless they succeeded in a new lawsuit or lawmakers and voters agreed to repeal the 2006 constitutional amendment.
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