Wisconsin federal court holds state marriage law unconstitutional

June 6

Today Wisconsin District Court Judge Barbara Crabb struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriages.  The prohibition, held Judge Crabb, violates the fundamental right to marry protected by the Due Process Clause and constitutes discrimination based on sexual orientation in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

This evening same-sex couples were already receiving marriage licenses in Milwaukee, whose county clerk vowed to stay open late.  The opinion concludes that the judge will consider a proposed injunction to be submitted by June 16, with a week’s reply time for the state.  At that point the judge will consider the state’s pending motion to stay any order.  I’m not sure on what grounds county clerks are issuing licenses right away.

While neither the Due Process nor the Equal Protection holding breaks any new ground, the 88-page opinion is one of the more fully reasoned decisions on the issues. On the fundamental-right issue, for example, Judge Crabb noted that the question can be framed in subtly different ways that have a significant impact on the outcome: “I conclude defendants are making the same mistake as the Court in Bowers when they frame the question in this case as whether there is a ‘right to same-sex marriage’ instead of whether there is a right to marriage from which same-sex couples can be excluded.”

On the Equal Protection issue, Judge Crabb concluded that she was free under Seventh Circuit precedent to apply heightened scrutiny–despite what she called dictum in a 2002 appellate ruling that suggested otherwise. Crabb decided that intermediate scrutiny should apply to sexual-orientation discrimination based on its similarity to sex discrimination (although, like almost all other judges, she declined to rule on sex-discrimination grounds).

In the conclusion of her opinion, Judge Crabb teed up the issue for the Seventh Circuit with an especially pointed reference to Judge Richard Posner’s evolution on the policy question:

In light of Windsor and the many decisions that have invalidated restrictions on same-sex marriage since Windsor, it appears that courts are moving toward a consensus that it is time to embrace full legal equality for gay and lesbian citizens. Perhaps it is no coincidence that these decisions are coming at a time when public opinion is moving quickly in the direction of support for same-sex marriage. Compare Richard A. Posner, Should There Be Homosexual Marriage? And If So, Who Should Decide? 95 Mich. L. Rev. 1578, 1585 (1997) (“Public opinion may change . . . but at present it is too firmly against same-sex marriage for the courts to act.”), with Richard A. Posner, “Homosexual Marriage—Posner,” The Becker-Posner Blog (May 13, 2012) (“[T]he only remaining basis for opposition to homosexual marriage . . . is religious. . . . But whatever the [religious objections are], the United States is not a theocracy and should hesitate to enact laws that serve religious rather than pragmatic secular aims.”).

Dale Carpenter is the Distinguished University Teaching Professor and Earl R. Larson Professor of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties Law at the University of Minnesota Law School. He teaches and writes in the areas of constitutional law; the freedoms of speech, association, and religion; and sexual orientation and the law.
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Jonathan H. Adler · June 6