WSJ: Hundreds of June marriages hang in limbo as state mulls landmark gay rights ruling

Stephanie Donhauser just wants someone to tell her if she’s married.

Donhauser wed her partner, Laura Clees, in Madison on June 7, during a weeklong window that saw hundreds of same-sex unions after a judge threw out Wisconsin’s gay marriage ban and before the ruling was stayed pending appeals.

But at the time, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen insisted the ban remained “in full force and effect” and told county officials they had no authority to issue marriage license applications, although 42 counties did.

On Wednesday, two days after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider Van Hollen’s last-chance appeal, state officials are sorting out what changes — in areas ranging from tax forms to adoption papers to public employee health benefits — must be made.

Complicating things — and frustrating Donhauser and hundreds of other couples — is the question of the June marriages, which the Attorney General’s office won’t discuss because it is the topic of a lawsuit filed against Gov. Scott Walker, Van Hollen and other officials last month.

Donhauser said she called three state agencies Tuesday in an unsuccessful effort to find out if she can file paperwork needed to use health insurance advantages available to married individuals.

She estimates she will save about $50 a week in income taxes on coverage she buys for Clees. She also wants to change her payroll withholding to reflect income tax benefits married status would give her.

“Every day that goes by I’m losing money,” said Donhauser, a Madison firefighter for 23 years.

Van Hollen’s employees at the state Department of Justice told her to hire a private lawyer for advice, because they can’t give legal advice to members of the public. State law, with few exceptions, only allows them to counsel state officials.

But Donhauser said the state should be able to answer simple, common-sense questions.

“Telling me if I’m married is legal advice?” Donhauser said. “I can’t believe it’s been so hard to get any information. What’s the big secret? Either I’m married and it’s all good or I’m not married and we have to get married again.”

Van Hollen spokeswoman Dana Brueck said any advice the department gives state agencies on taxes or any other matters is governed by attorney-client privilege, which only the client can waive.

“We have been in communication with various state agencies regarding the (Supreme Court) denial, yes, and how Wisconsin will comply,” Brueck said. “While we may be advising agencies, I cannot estimate when they may have agency-specific information to share with the public.”

The legal director for the ACLU of Wisconsin, which in February filed the lawsuit that this week ended the state marriage ban, said he’s sympathetic with state officials, to a point.

“On the one hand it’s understandable that bureaucracies move slowly,” Larry Dupuis said.

But the writing has been on the wall in the last year or so , he said.

“It wouldn’t be outlandish to expect the state to have been preparing for this, given the almost unbroken success in federal and state courts,” Dupuis said. “And some things should be pretty easy to figure out and implement. It’s really unfair to keep people guessing any longer.”

In September, the ACLU filed a second lawsuit, this one asking a federal judge to force Walker and Van Hollen to recognize the June 6-13 marriages. Clerks accepted at least 637 marriage license applications that week, according to a State Journal poll of county clerks offices.

Failing to do so blocks those couples from enjoying at least 72 rights and benefits state law confers on married people, the ACLU has said in court filings.

Dupuis said his office has contacted Van Hollen in an effort to settle the lawsuit.

Walker has said the state will adhere to the Supreme Court decision, but offered little detail about how.

State Department of Revenue assistant deputy secretary Jennifer Western on Monday said “Wisconsin will uphold the law,” but referred any other questions to Van Hollen.

On Wednesday she didn’t respond to questions sent to her by phone and email.

State Vital Records Office spokeswoman Jennifer Miller said she had nothing to share about any changes that may be needed regarding records related to things such as adoptions by same-sex spouses.

At the state Department of Employee Trust Funds, the semi-autonomous agency that administers public employee benefits, including pensions and health insurance, spokesman Mark Lamkins said officials were meeting Thursday to discuss possible changes in response to the Supreme Court’s decision. Lamkins said he would provide updates as more was known.


Thursday, October 9, 2014