Madison - Gov. Scott Walker believes a new law that gives gay couples hospital visitation rights violates the state constitution and has asked a judge to allow the state to stop defending it.
Democrats who controlled the Legislature in 2009 changed the law so that same-sex couples could sign up for domestic partnership registries with county clerks to secure some - but not all - of the rights afforded married couples.
Wisconsin Family Action sued last year in Dane County circuit court, arguing that the registries violated a 2006 amendment to the state constitution that bans gay marriage and any arrangement that is substantially similar.
Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen refused to defend the lawsuit, saying he agreed the new law violated the state constitution. Then-Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, hired Madison attorney Lester Pines to defend the state.
Walker, a Republican, replaced Doyle in January and fired Pines in March. On Friday, Walker filed a motion to stop defending the case.
"Governor Walker, in deference to the legal opinion of the attorney general that the domestic partner registry...is unconstitutional, does not believe the public interest requires a continued defense of this law," says the brief, filed by Walker's chief counsel, Brian Hagedorn.
Hagedorn told Dane County Circuit Judge Daniel Moeser that if he could not withdraw from the case, he would like to amend earlier filings to reflect Walker's belief that the registries conflict with the state constitution.
Even if Walker is allowed to withdraw from the case, the law would still be defended in court because gay rights group Fair Wisconsin intervened in the case last year.
Fair Wisconsin attorney Christopher Clark said the governor's move raises legal questions.
"It's not clear to me that a defendant in a lawsuit... can simply walk away from a lawsuit or withdraw," he said.
Pines said Walker's aides never gave him an explanation when they told him to stop working on the case. He said he was troubled by the latest court filing.
"The governor of this state has an obligation to defend laws he doesn't like. And for that matter, so does the attorney general," Pines said. "This shows an utter disrespect for the rule of law."
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie disagreed.
"We don't believe it is in the best interest of the state and its taxpayers to spend additional time and resources defending the legislation," he said in an email.
In 2006, 60% of state voters signed off on changing the constitution to ban gay marriage and a "legal status identical or substantially similar to marriage" for same-sex couples.
Wisconsin Family Action advocated for the amendment. The group first sued the state over the same-sex registries shortly after they were created in 2009, taking its case directly to the state Supreme Court in hopes of getting a quick verdict.
The high court declined to hear the case, and the group then filed a lawsuit last year in Dane County circuit court.
The registries allow same-sex couples to take family and medical leave to care for a seriously ill partner, make end-of-life decisions and have hospital visitation rights. But according to Fair Wisconsin, they still confer only about a quarter of the rights associated with marriage, lacking provisions to allow couples to file joint tax returns or adopt children together.
As of August 2010, about 1,500 same-sex couples had registered with counties.