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ACLU Urges WI Court to Allow Registered Domestic Partners to Speak in Support of DP Law

1 Oct

Couples Seek To Help Defend Lawsuit Challenging Wisconsin’s Domestic Partner Law

On Friday, October 1, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion before a Dane County Circuit Court on behalf of five couples asking that they be allowed to participate in a lawsuit seeking to overturn Wisconsin’s law granting limited domestic partnership protections to same-sex couples, so that they may defend the law. The law is being challenged by an anti-gay organization that contends that the law grants same-sex couples the same status as marriage, which is barred by the Wisconsin Constitution.

“Same-sex couples who have registered as domestic partners have the most at stake in this lawsuit and deserve to be heard,” said John Knight, staff attorney with the ACLU Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Project. “Only those directly affected by the law know what it’s like to worry about not being able to visit a partner in the hospital or to be left with nothing when a partner dies without a will.”

Wisconsin’s law allows for same-sex couples to register as domestic partners, granting them hospital visitation rights, the right to make certain decisions about medical care and rights to family and medical leave. Same-sex couples are still denied crucial protections provided only to married couples, such as the right to decide what happens to their partner’s body at death, and are denied access to all federal benefits, such as Social Security and veterans’ benefits.

Board members of Wisconsin Family Action had asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to strike down the domestic partner law as inconsistent with the amendment to the state constitution that bans same-sex couples from marriage. The case, Appling v. Doyle, was dismissed by the state Supreme Court and re-filed in the circuit court, where both sides will be able to have a trial and present evidence to support their cases.

“While the domestic partnership law in no way provides the same benefits and legal protections as marriage, it is a lifeline for committed couples who seek the security and dignity of being able to provide for their families,” said Larry Dupuis of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “These couples have the right to defend these limited, but extremely important, protections against this unwarranted and mean-spirited attack.”

Also today, Lambda Legal also filed court papers today to intervene in the case on behalf of Fair Wisconsin and five member couples, saying that domestic partnerships and marriages are not “substantially similar.”

Attorneys on the case include Knight of the ACLU, Dupuis of the ACLU of Wisconsin and David J.B. Froiland, Linda E.B. Hansen, Daniel A. Manna and David B. Goroff of Foley & Lardner LLP.

Additional information about the case, including bios of the couples and legal documents, is available online.

ACLU of WI Will Support State’s Domestic Partner Registry: Same-sex Couples Will Show Registry is Not Marriage

20 Aug

The ACLU of Wisconsin will continue its work to ensure that same-sex couples maintain the basic protections provided in the state’s new domestic partnership registry.

“We expected a challenge to the registry in a lower court,” said Chris Ahmuty, ACLU of Wisconsin’s executive director. “We’re fully prepared to help defend the state’s registry so that same-sex couples in Wisconsin can have access to the basic, although limited, legal rights their families need.”

The ACLU of Wisconsin supported the defense of the state’s domestic partnership registry in 2009 when an earlier challenge was filed by Wisconsin Family Action in the state Supreme Court. The Wisconsin Supreme Court dismissed the complaint in November 2009. This week Wisconsin Family Action filed a new challenge in the Dane County court which could allow both sides to have a trial and present evidence to support their cases.

“While the Wisconsin Family Action and the Alliance Defense Fund will attempt to compare the domestic partnership registry to the legal definition of marriage,” Ahmuty continued, “same-sex couples will seek to demonstrate a factual record of how the protections offered by the registry are quite limited and in no way violate the marriage ban.”

For more of our recent work on LGBT rights, visit the issues section of our website. Read more about the latest challenge to same-sex families in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal. The Journal Sentinel article has a lively comments section, so feel free to weigh in with your support for LGBT equality.

Domestic Partners Seek To Intervene In Lawsuit Challenging Wisconsin’s Domestic Partner Law

22 Sep

The ACLU Urges Wisconsin Supreme Court To Send Case To Trial Court So That Those Most Affected By The Lawsuit Can Be Heard

On September 22, 2009, The American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion before the Wisconsin Supreme Court on behalf of five same-sex couples asking that they be allowed to participate in a lawsuit that will decide whether the state’s newly enacted domestic partner law violates Wisconsin’s anti-gay marriage amendment.

Anti-gay activists have asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to strike down the domestic partner law as inconsistent with the marriage amendment. The couples also ask the Court to reject the petition and send the case to a trial court so that evidence can be presented to show that the domestic partner law does not violate the anti-gay marriage amendment that passed in 2006.

“While the domestic partner law falls far short of marriage, we were grateful when it passed that we would no longer have to worry about being able to visit each other in the hospital,” said Jayne Dunnum who, along with her partner of 17 years, Robin Timm, registered to become domestic partners when the law went into effect this summer. “But with this lawsuit those fears are back, and we’d like the opportunity to explain to the courts how this affects us.”

According to the motion filed by the ACLU, the five same-sex couples meet all the legal requirements for becoming a party to the litigation and would suffer harm if the court overturns the domestic partner law.

“We’re hopeful that the Wisconsin Supreme Court will recognize that lesbian and gay couples have the most at stake in this lawsuit and deserve their day in court,” said Larry Dupuis, Legal Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “Only same-sex couples can describe what it’s like to fear not being able to visit a partner in the hospital or being left with nothing when a partner dies without a will. And only same-sex couples can explain what it means to be shut out of marriage and have to accept a poorly understood, second-class status as domestic partners with 43 legal protections versus more than 200 that come with marriage.”

The anti-gay activists who are seeking to take away the legal protections for registered domestic partners have claimed that they need a speedy resolution and are entitled to go directly to the Wisconsin Supreme Court because the modest legal protections granted to same-sex couples through the law somehow affect the marriages of straight couples. Rather incredulously, they also claim that it would be in the best interest of lesbian and gay couples to have a speedy resolution even though they are asking the court to strip domestic partners of all legal protections.

According to the ACLU, there are important factual issues in the case, such as the many ways in which domestic partnership differs from marriage, that call for the kind of testimony that same-sex couples can provide to the Court. To consider this important evidence, the Supreme Court should refuse to accept this case directly but instead allow a circuit court to develop the factual record.

During the political campaign for the anti-gay marriage amendment that is the basis for this lawsuit, these same anti-gay activists told the voters that domestic partner benefits would not be affected by the amendment and legislators said that the state would be allowed to pass a law giving same-sex couples some legal protections.

“The anti-gay activists misled the voters into passing the amendment by saying that it would not affect the rights of domestic partners. Then they tried to prevent the legislature from providing modest legal protections for same-sex couples. And soon after the bill went into effect, they brought a lawsuit to take those protections away, based on the amendment that they said would not affect such rights” said John Knight, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. “It’s incredible the lengths they will go to deny committed couples basic protections for their families.”

The same-sex couples asking to be allowed into the lawsuit include:

Jayne Dunnum and Robin Timm from Plattsville, WI, have been together for 17 years. After Timm was injured on their farm and had to be rushed to the emergency room, they worry about being able to visit each other in the hospital and are hoping the domestic partner law will put an end to these worries.

Carol Schumacher and Virginia Wolf from Eau Claire, WI, have been together for 34 years. As they enter their senior years, the domestic partner law would ease their worries about being shut out of conversations about each other’s medical care and other end-of-life decisions and guarantee that they are not barred from sharing a room if they end up in a nursing home.

Wendy and Mary Woodruff from Milwaukee, WI, have been together for 12 years. As a minister for the Metropolitan Community Church, Rev. Wendy Woodruff has had to console a congregant who lost everything, including her home and furniture, when her partner was killed and the partner’s relatives claimed their entire estate. They fear the same thing would happen to them without the inheritance protections of the domestic partner law.

Judith Trampf and Katy Heyning from Madison, WI, celebrated their 20th Anniversary this summer. A few years back, Heyning had a seizure that left her unable to drive for six months. Unable to take family leave, Trampf had to use her vacation time to drive Katy to doctor’s appointments and to and from work. Under the domestic partner law, the couple would finally gain access to family leave protection.

Diane Schermann and Missy Collins from Eau Claire, WI, have known each other for 10 years and have been a couple for five. The couple is raising seven children, including Diane’s two children from a previous marriage, a new baby that Missy gave birth to through in vitro fertilization and four foster children, two of which are relatives of Collins. Like many couples their age, the couple has put off making wills because of the expense. The domestic partner law would guarantee that at least half of their joint property automatically passes to each other.

Lambda Legal also filed papers today to intervene in the Appling v. Doyle case on behalf of Fair Wisconsin, the statewide equality organization, and its members. Lambda Legal, like the ACLU, says domestic partnerships and marriages are not “substantially similar.”

Linda Hansen, David Froiland, Jason Plowman, Daniel Manna and David Goroff of Foley & Lardner, LLP are assisting ACLU attorneys Dupuis and Knight in representing the couples. Additional information about the ACLU’s motion, including bios and photographs of the couples and the legal documents filed today are available online.

News roundup: more support for voting rights, postponed Kenosha cursing decision and more

11 Sep

A news round up from the week – good civil liberties articles and issues you don’t want to miss!

Voting Rights
Rep. Joseph Parisi made a supportive statement about the committee hearing for the Wisconsin Democracy Restoration Act bill. His comments on how racial bias in the criminal justice system disfranchises a larger amount of people of color gives good support for the bill. The Capital Times had a supportive editorial and the On Milwaukee blog gave it a shout out.

Free Speech
ACLU of Wisconsin board member and law professor Jon Marshall was interviewed on a Fox 6 news report on the proposed Kenosha cursing ticket ordinance. The Kenosha City Council decided to postpone their vote. The ACLU of Wisconsin continues to urge them to drop the proposal.

There were also articles in the Madison Isthmus on the police crackdown on selling political newspapers on State St. as well as a Green Bay Press Gazette editorial questioning the timing of a park gun ban so soon after a man carried his firearm as a public statement of Second Amendment rights. And did you catch the news about the Wisconsin Representative who wants the legislature to advise journalists to stop calling H1N1 influenza the “swine” flu?

Milwaukee Examiner blog features story about a biker from Hudson, WI who is biking across the country for charity. He brought attention to the West Bend book banning controversy and the Examiner blog post has some fun facts about Banned Books Week. Celebrate Banned Books Week this month in Wisconsin.

Domestic Partnerships
The Cap Times had a scorcher of an opinion piece on the political motivations for Attorney General Van Hollen to not represent the state in the challenge against the new statewide domestic partnership registry and benefits. The Duluth News Tribune had a similar article with an overview of the AG’s opinions in the course of his tenure. The ACLU of Wisconsin also sent out a Tweet earlier this week on the legal opinion from UW Law School professor David Schwartz which described how the registry and benefits are Constitutional.

Census
There was an article on madison.com on how non-profit organizations are lining up to help people understand more about their participation in the Census. There was also a timeline on what to expect. While their is a national organization urging immigrants to not participate in the Census, Wisconsin immigrant rights groups are underscoring the need and the benefits of full participation of everyone in our community.

News roundup: fair housing victory, NIMBY on detainees, blogging on profiling and more

7 Aug

Here’s a quick wrap-up of some civil liberties related news of the week…

Fair Housing
The ACLU of Wisconsin won a court case against the city of South Milwaukee to prevent the razing of an apartment building that housed a large portion of the city’s minority population. More details to come.

Close Guantanamo
Last month, some legislators introduced a bill to reject any Gitmo detainees from being housed in Wisconsin jails. It’s a move that legislators are attempting across the country to stir debate about terrorism, even though we already have many convicted terrorists behind bars on US soil (remember the perps from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing? Oklahoma City fed building bombing? Even Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui is in Colorado). But this week, the Obama Administration was talking about the complexity of dealing with the often-uncharged detainees and that they might try to build a courthouse/supermax combo in Michigan or Kansas.

If you haven’t already, tell President Obama to reject indefinite detention and close Guantanamo asap.

Census and Redistricting
Census folks have been out in neighborhoods to confirm addresses since the spring, but the big count won’t happen until 2010. One of the big questions will be around how the count of prisoners will be used in future redistricting of politicans’ turf. A timely op-ed from the NY Times describes why counting prisoners where they are incarcerated makes redistricting complicated and unbalanced. Our own Wisconsin state legislators will be talking about Assembly Joint Resolution 63 which would exclude the census’ prisoner count from redistricting plans. The hearing will be on September 3.

Voting Rights
Senator Russ Feingold helped to introduce legislation at the federal level to end discrimination in voting rights against people with felony convictions. This interesting article gives the perspective from the southern states and describes why this voting rights issue echoes the long history of both Jim Crow and the prison industrial complex.

Response to the Wisconsin Democracy Restoration bill has been good. A large coalition of organizations is behind it and to date we have only found two blog posts against it (one from Sen. Mary Lazich and another from the same folks who brought complaints about gay and lesbian books in the West Bend community library.

Speaking of voting, did you get a letter from the Government Accountability Board about your voter registration status? They are cleaning up their databases. See your city clerk to get your info updated.

Racial Profiling
Opinions are mixed about the new seat belt/racial data collection item the budget the Governor signed last month. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation cited the new law that would give police the power to pull drivers over for not wearing a seat belt as a reason for record-low traffic fatalities in July. However, the Milwaukee County Sheriff is blogging about how the racial profiling data collection is a tool of exploitation by “race hustlers” and that ACLU has nothing better to do than to sue police.

Sheriff Clarke might have missed the report and recommendations issued last year by the Office of Justice Assistance and the Governor’s Commission on Reducing Racial Disparities in the Wisconsin Justice System. The commission included police, corrections and housing experts, judges, lawyers, academics, community and faith leaders. The report strongly recommended that “throughout the state, we must increase and improve the validity and reliability of data, e.g. collecting and making data available,” and that “appropriate state agencies should be directed to conduct a county-by-county baseline study of racial disparity using existing traffic citation and arrest data to determine (racial) disparity levels in the state.” The report is supposed to be a blueprint for effectively addressing our disproportionate minority incarceration rate in our state.

The reality is that racial profiling is one slice of the pie that makes Wisconsin one of the worst states for putting people of color behind bars. Anyone could suggest that a Governor’s commission and an OJA report is politically motivated. But disproportionate minority contact by law enforcement is a systemic problem. A systemic problem is bigger than a few racist cops. A systemic problem is bigger than one sheriff who feels politically targeted. And a systemic problem needs a systemic analysis. Buckle up drivers!

Gay and Lesbian Rights
The domestic partner registry began this week. In Dane County, 50 couples registered on the first day. County clerks had geared up for lines of couples waiting to register. While the Cap Times article says that applying for the registry has the same process as getting a marriage license, both the state Legislative Council and the ACLU of Wisconsin said that the registry does not equate marriage.

But organizations like the “Wisconsin Family Action” are still insisting that the domestic partnership provisions are “marriage-like” and have filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The ACLU of Wisconsin has committed to fighting a legal challenge to domestic partnerships in the state.

ACLU of WI Stands Up to WI Family Action’s Legal Attack on Domestic Partnerships

23 Jul

On the morning of Thursday, July 23, the anti-gay organization called Wisconsin Family Action filed a complaint about the domestic partner provisions in the state budget. The complaint was sent to the state Supreme Court asking for an original action, a move to skip right to the top of challenging the law through the court system and demand an injunction to stop the registry and benefits from being recognized. (Legal geek? Read the full complaint here.)

We’ve written before about how the domestic partnership registry and benefits for state workers is nowhere close to marriage. While the registry and benefits will help to make daily life feel more fair for real Wisconsin families, the limits to protections can hardly be considered “substantially similar” to marriage the way that state-recognized civil unions might.

The ACLU of Wisconsin today issued a statement on why the Supreme Court should deny the Wisconsin Family Action and Alliance Defense Fund petition. These groups not only believe that the domestic partnership provisions violate the 2006 constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, they also say that it “redefines marriage” in a “sneaky assault.”

The petitioners’ reasons for seeking to skip the lower courts and go straight to the Wisconsin Supreme Court meet none of the tests required by the Court to take jurisdiction of this matter as an original action.

They think the facts are simple (i.e. domestic partnership registries and benefits are just like marriage and actually threaten heterosexual married couples). But they are actually asking the Supreme Court to have to decide whether the few protections that the legislature has provided to same-sex couples are ‘substantially similar’ to marriage. It will also have to decide whether the newly created status of domestic partner is ‘substantially similar’ to marriage. Both arguments require factual development which is what lower trial courts are for.

Wisconsin Family Action doesn’t just want to erase fairness for same-sex couples: they want to erase history. Three years ago, leading proponents of the anti-gay marriage amendment repeatedly admitted that domestic partnership benefits and protections are not the same as marriage. In February 2006, Wisconsin Family Action Executive Director Julaine Appling said in the Capital Times that “domestic partner benefits were not threatened” by the amendment. Earlier, in November of 2005, legislators received a memo from state Senator Scott Fitzgerald and Rep. Mark Gundrum saying that “no particular privileges or benefits would be prohibited” under the marriage ban. The memo put into writing that legal constructs by governments would be allowed: exactly what was signed into law by Governor Doyle this year.

Clearly this challenge will have an impact statewide, but it is not about maintaining existing marriages except in the minds of the petitioners. The domestic partnership registry and the benefits and protections associated with it, whether taken singly or as a whole, are nothing close to marriage. In fact, married Wisconsinites should ask themselves, would you trade your marriage and its hundreds of legal protections for the newly created domestic partnership? Of course not, because they aren’t the same.

The ACLU of Wisconsin anticipates that the State of Wisconsin will argue vigorously against acceptance of this petition and in defense of the domestic partnership registry. The ACLU of Wisconsin in April went on record offering to assist in any necessary defense of the domestic partnership registry.

The ACLU of Wisconsin is a membership organization devoted to the defense of the civil liberties and rights of all Wisconsin residents. Read the full statement from the ACLU of Wisconsin and from Fair Wisconsin.

Domestic Partner benefits lawsuit: the good, the bad and the hopeful

3 Jun

If you haven’t heard the news already, on Friday, May 29th a Wisconsin trial court dismissed the lawsuit that the ACLU of Wisconsin brought on behalf of state workers suing for health insurance and leave protections for their families and same-sex partners.

The bad news: the case was dismissed. The judge was bound by a prior decision from the Wisconsin Court of Appeals back in 1992.

The good news: the written decision is a testament to the unconstitutionality of denying state employees equality in worker benefits for their families.

The Court’s written opinion states: “The plaintiffs have offered a strong showing that the employment benefits in issue have been provided on a discriminatory basis. The defendants’ explanations offered for the continuing discrimination against these plaintiffs are unpersuasive and inadequate.”

“Losing doesn’t get any better than this,” said Larry Dupuis, Litigation Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “We knew we had an uphill battle in the trial court because of the earlier case. But the court agreed with us that discrimination based on sexual orientation should be subject to strict judicial review and that it is unconstitutional for the state to deny equal benefits.”

The Court also found that providing the benefits would not be barred by the anti-gay marriage amendment that passed in 2006.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit in April 2005 on behalf of six lesbian state employees and their partners. The lawsuit charges that it is a violation of the state’s equal protection guarantees to deny lesbian and gay state employees access to the same health insurance and family leave protections that it provides to straight employees who are able to cover their spouses. The lawsuit was stalled for years because a number of Wisconsin municipalities tried to inject themselves into the lawsuit. The issue ultimately went up to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which ruled that they were not entitled to become a party to the litigation.

Governor Jim Doyle has repeatedly stated that he would like to provide lesbian and gay state employees with equal health insurance coverage. There is currently a provision in the Governor’s budget that successfully cleared the Joint Finance Committee. The budget is heading for the state Assembly for a vote. Identical budget bills need to be approved by the Assembly and the Senate before heading back to the Governor to sign. You can find out who represents you in the state Assembly and Senate and tell them how you feel about fairness for domestic partnerships.

“While we are heartened by the court’s decision, we urge the legislature to pass the domestic partner provision in the state budget so there will be no need to appeal,” added Chris Ahmuty, Executive Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “Our clients are forced to pay expensive prices for inferior health coverage and sometimes even to forego necessary care. They suffer every day this issue goes unresolved.”

Wisconsin Department of Corrections employee Jayne Dunnum and her partner, Robin Timm, pay nearly $450 a month for private insurance for Timm who works on the couple’s organic farm and food store in Platteville.

“We don’t care if it happens through the courts or the legislature. We just really need the health insurance coverage,” said Dunnum. “It’s a matter of basic fairness. I work just as hard has my straight colleagues and shouldn’t be denied the equal employment benefits.”

The case is Dunnum v. Department of Employee Trust Funds. The couples are represented by John Knight and Rose Saxe of the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project, Larry Dupuis of the ACLU of Wisconsin, and cooperating attorneys Linda Roberson and Christopher Krimmer of the Madison law firm Balisle & Roberson.

Biographical information for all of the couples, today’s decision, the complaint, and additional information are available at the ACLU LGBT Get Busy Get Equal case profiles page.

What the State of the State means to civil liberties in 2009

29 Jan

Governor Doyle just gave his State of the State Address (PDF or watch it on Wisconsin Eye) and it was a mixed bag in terms of civil liberties.

While it is true that we are all facing hard times with our current economy and a large state deficit, we can’t ignore how important it is to have a budget that includes a plan for educational equity in school funding, repealing or at least defunding Real ID, and including health insurance coverage for the domestic partners of all state employees, among many other issues.

“The ACLU of Wisconsin applauds the Governor’s commitment to public education and changing the way that schools are funded,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Chris Ahmuty. “We hope that the Governor establishes comprehensive school funding reform that provides an adequate education for all Wisconsin students. Reform must ensure that all children have an adequate education, whether they are in Superior, Crandon, or Milwaukee; whether they live in concentrated poverty, are English language learners, or have other obstacles in their paths.”

The Governor is right to demand a change in how Wisconsin deals with drunken driving, but the call for sobriety checkpoints will only subject innocent drivers to suspicionless searches.

“While drunken driving is a serious issue, the ACLU of Wisconsin is disappointed that the Governor chose to stress sobriety checkpoints in his State of the State address. We believe that there are more cost effective ways to deter drunken drivers, ones that do not offend the civil liberties of innocent drivers. We urge the Legislature to concentrate on other measures.”

While the Governor can’t include every issue in his State of the State Address, we hope to see more attention to details including a reasonable state position on the now-discredited federal Real ID program and a commitment to providing health insurance coverage to the same sex domestic partners of all state employees.

Stay tuned to Cap City Liberty and ACLU-WI.org for more on the budget and its relationship to civil liberties and equality.