Gov. Scott Walker has told a judge he wants to stop defending Wisconsin's domestic partner registry in court because he doesn't believe it's constitutional.
Members of the conservative group Wisconsin Family Action filed a lawsuit last summer arguing the registry violates the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage. Former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat who proposed the registry as a means of granting same-sex couples more legal rights, chose to defend the measure and had filed a motion asking Dane County Circuit Judge Daniel Moeser for summary judgment upholding it. Walker, a Republican, inherited the case from Doyle when he took office in January.
The governor filed a motion with Moeser late Friday asking to withdraw the defense because he believes the registry is unconstitutional. The governor pointed to a legal opinion Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen issued two years ago that concluded the registry was indeed unconstitutional because it mimics marriage.
"If the governor determines that defending a law would be contrary to the state's constitution, he cannot order the defense of the law because of his oath to support the Wisconsin Constitution," Walker's attorney, Brian Hagedorn, wrote in the motion. "To allow the previous administration's analysis to bind a subsequent administration would be contrary to what justice requires."
It was unclear when Moeser might rule on the motion. Even if he dismisses the state, the case will continue. The gay rights group Fair Wisconsin has joined the case as an intervener and will continue defending the registry, said Katie Belanger, the group's executive director.
"It wasn't unanticipated that Gov. Walker would be changing his position," Belanger said. "It's certainly disappointing that our governor is not working to continue to allow same-sex couples to have basic protections. We're still very confident the registry is legal."
Wisconsin Family Action pushed the constitutional ban, which voters added to the document in 2006. The Legislature, then controlled by Democrats, put the registry into effect in August 2009.
The listing grants same-sex couples legal rights such as the right to visit each other in hospitals, make end-of-life decisions and inherit each other's property, although supporters insist the registry doesn't come close to bestowing all the rights that come with marriage.
Reached after hours Monday evening, state Department of Health Services spokesman Seth Boffeli said he didn't immediately have up-to-date figures on how many couples were on the registry. However, about 1,330 couples had signed up as of the end of 2009.
Wisconsin Family Action asked the state Supreme Court that same year to strike the registry down directly, bypassing the lower courts. Van Hollen refused to defend the registry, relying on his legal conclusion the list was clearly unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court refused to take the case, forcing Wisconsin Family Action to refile the action in circuit court.
Doyle hired attorney Lester Pines to defend the listing, but Walker fired him earlier this year. Pines said Walker's withdrawal shows he cares more about pleasing his conservative base than defending state statutes.
"He represents gay and lesbian people, too. He may not like gay and lesbian people ... but he's still obligated to defend those rights," Pines said.
Walker spokesman Chris Schrimpf didn't immediately return an email message.
A message left at Wisconsin Family Action's offices after hours Monday evening wasn't immediately returned. The group's executive director, Julaine Appling, declined to comment.