On June 6, 2014, Judge Barbara Crabb of the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin declared Wisconsin’s gay-marriage ban unconstitutional.
The plaintiffs in the case are eight same-sex couples who want to marry in Wisconsin or who have a marriage from another jurisdiction that they want recognized in Wisconsin. The plaintiffs claimed that they are prohibited from doing so because of a 2006 amendment to the Wisconsin Constitution that limits marriage in the state to between “one man and one woman” and because of certain other state laws that limit the definition of marriage to between a “husband” and “wife.”
The plaintiffs asserted that such laws were unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from denying to any person (i) life, liberty, or property without due process of law (the due process clause) and (ii) equal protection of the laws (the equal protection clause).
In her 88-page written decision, Judge Crabb concluded that Wisconsin’s marriage laws are unconstitutional under both the due process clause and the equal protection clause. Judge Crabb initially noted that both sides agreed that marriage plays a central role in American society, calling it “essential to the pursuit of happiness, [and] one of the inalienable rights in our Declaration of Independence.” Given the importance of marriage in our society, Judge Crabb declared that the state’s refusal to allow the plaintiffs the benefits of marriage was no less than a denial of equal citizenship.
Judge Crabb next considered each of the six bases proposed by the state to justify prohibiting same-sex marriage and rejected each one in turn. The court concluded that the ban does not further any legitimate state interest.
Immediately following the court’s ruling, county clerks throughout the state began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Some clerks even waived the five-day waiting period, so couples could marry immediately. Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen vowed to appeal the ruling and asked the court to stay enforcement of the decision during the appeal process. On June 13, 2014, one week after her initial ruling, Judge Crabb determined that she was constrained by Supreme Court precedent and was compelled to stay her decision. Local news sources reported that more than 500 marriage licenses were issued in the state between Judge Crabb’s initial ruling and the June 13 stay.
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