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Rock County to issue same-sex marriage licenses

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Neil Johnson
June 8, 2014

JANESVILLE—Rock County Clerk Lori Stottler says she's opening her office doors Monday morning with the intent to serve both opposite-sex and same-sex couples who seek marriage licenses.

Stottler said she believes that between a federal ruling in Madison on Friday that struck down Wisconsin's ban on gay marriage, and the current wording of state statutes on marriage licenses, she cannot legally deny people who come to her office seeking same-sex marriage licenses.

That would make Rock County one of three counties in Wisconsin whose courthouses are now granting  marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Milwaukee and Dane Counties began immediately issuing the licenses on Friday, after U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb overturned the state's gay marriage ban.

Crabb's ruling struck down an amendment to the state constitution approved by voters in 2006. Crabb did not stay the ruling, and she did not issue an order blocking its enforcement.

This weekend, county clerks and lawyers statewide have tried to make sense of the ruling and whether it meant same-sex couples could marry in Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen released an opinion that “current (state) law” on marriage licenses remains in force. 

Stottler said that's part of the dilemma. She said she spent the weekend reading Crabb's 88-page ruling, and combing over state statutes.

Stottler said she cannot find any part of state statute that refers to marriage as a male-female institution, although she said a “blurb” in the state constitution mentions it.   

“Statutes (on marriage and marriage licenses) do not mention gender. They only mention “applicants” and “individuals,” Stottler said. “I feel based on my understanding, I have no legal way to deny people,” she said.

Stottler said as of Sunday evening, she had been unable to get clarification or advice from the state Department of Health Services or Rock County's corporation councel on how to handle same-sex marriage license requests in the wake of Crabb's ruling. 

Stottler said she has talked to other county clerks over the weekend, and she has decided to move forward at 8 a.m. Monday by serving marriage licenses to "all qualified individuals.”

“I can't have applicants standing outside my door and not knowing what to do,” she said.

Stottler says she's afraid of the legal consequences of denying people who show up seeking a same-sex marriage license.   

Dane and Milwaukee counties were named in the lawsuit that Crabb ruled on because clerks there had turned away people seeking same-sex marriages based on the state constitution not having clear read the issue.

“If I turn people away based on the ruling, just because I don't know what to do, I'm more afraid of the county being sued, based on the implications of the (Crabb) ruling,” she said.

Stottler said she believes that under state law, “qualified individuals” are any two people who apply in person for a wedding license who have a valid ID, social security number, and haven't had a prior marriage dissolved in the last six months.

“As long as they can meet the state requirements, I don't believe I have a legal basis to send them off,” she said.

Stottler said unless there's a legal stay or an injunction to block the ruling, Stottler says she'll continue to issue licenses.

“I'll continue to do licenses until a court of law tells me to stop,” she said.

In a typical June, about 12 to 15 couples a day come to Stottler's office seeking marriage licenses, and the office gives about 800 licenses a year, compared to about 20,000 in Dane County.

Stottler said she doesn't know how many couples could seek licenses for same-sex marriages.

In Wisconsin, couples must pay $95 to apply for a marriage license, and it's a five-day wait. Normally, people have a six-day waiting period for a license unless they pay a $25 fee.

Stottler said she's going to waive the waiting period and the fee because of the “political climate” surrounding the issue.

Plaintiffs in the case Crabb ruled on have until June 16 to explain what they wanted to see happen with marriage licenses. It's not clear if that could take a ruling in a different direction.

Stottler said she wants to waive the waiting period on marriage licenses in case a ruling comes in the next few weeks that could change the scope of Crabb's ruling. And she has a legal disclaimer ready.

“When they come in. we'll say, 'Look, this is the ruling and the interpretation. You can't come back and say this is my fault, I should have known or ask for your $95 dollars if the law later says this is not possible.'

Stottler said the courthouse does not have a justice of the peace to conduct legal wedding proceedings, but an area Unitarian church group has emailed Stottler, saying a licensed minister could be on hand to conduct marriages this week.

Stottler said she realizes she could face heat from people opposed to same-sex marriage. But she said that can't deter her from following the law as she understands it.

“When judges are ruling, they are required to reach beyond their moral and emotional beliefs,” Stottler said. “As for me, I am not acting as a politician. I'm not acting on a personal belief system. I'm acting on my understanding of a statute, and a lack of guidance from the state.”



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