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News from around Wisconsin (7:56 p.m. 11/4/09)

Wis. Supreme Court rejects gay rights challenge

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The state Supreme Court has refused to directly take up a challenge to Wisconsin’s domestic partner registry, a move gay rights advocates touted Wednesdaytype:italic; as a triumph for same-sex couples.

A conservative group named Wisconsin Family Action said the registry violated the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage and argued the issue was so important that the Supreme Court should take it up immediately, bypassing the lower courts.

The Supreme Court justices did not explain the refusal in a terse order issued Tuesday and released Wednesday.

Wisconsin Family Action attorneys Richard Esenberg and Michael Dean said in a statement that the Supreme Court rarely takes cases directly, and that the group might file an action at the trial court level.

“We know that the court’s decision … can be based on any number of factors and implies nothing about the merits of the constitutional challenge,” the attorneys said.

Lawyers for Fair Wisconsin, a gay rights group that lobbied lawmakers to approve the registry, hailed the Supreme Court’s move as a victory.

“Even with the discriminatory amendment excluding same-sex couples from marriage, the Wisconsin Constitution does not prevent enactment of laws that offer basic decency and security for couples,” Fair Wisconsin attorney Christopher Clark said in a statement Wednesday.

Barrett says Obama didn’t talk governor’s race

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said Wednesday he did not talk with President Barack Obama about potentially running for governor during the president’s visit to Wisconsin.

The Democratic Party is without a major candidate for governor one year away from the election, and Barrett is receiving enormous pressure to run.

Barrett said he spoke briefly with Obama on the tarmac in Madison when he arrived for a speech at a middle school. They talked about education, the topic of Obama’s speech, but not the governor’s race or politics, Barrett said.

He said he would make a decision on entering the race soon.

The mayor said the president also did not talk with him about the controversial proposal Barrett supports that would give him control of the Milwaukee schools. Barrett said the fact that Obama decided to come to Wisconsin to talk education shows he supports the idea.

“His message today was right along the lines of what we’ve been talking about and that is you’ve got to close the failing schools, you’ve got to have dramatic change, there has to be dramatic reform,” Barrett said. “He knows, the secretary of education knows, that this debate is going on. He wouldn’t be here if he wanted to stay away from that.”

Gov. Jim Doyle also backs the mayoral takeover plan, which has yet to be introduced in the Legislature but may be taken up in a special session later this month or next. Doyle has said that such a move could improve Wisconsin’s chances to get some of the nearly $4.5 billion in federal stimulus money available under the Race to the Top grant program.

Feds pledge overhaul of tribal recognition system

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — With some American Indian groups waiting decades for formal recognition from the U.S. government, federal officials Wednesday pledged to overhaul the cumbersome process but cautioned the changes could take two years to go into effect.

Federal recognition renders tribes eligible for economic assistance, land, housing grants and other government benefits.

Decisions on whether tribes qualify are supposed to be made by the Department of Interior within 25 months. Yet some Indians have seen their petitions languish within the agency’s Bureau of Indian Affairs for 30 years or more without an answer.

“We have survived Indian removal, genocide, the Civil War, the burning of our courthouse, Jim Crow laws and their KKK enforcers,” said Ann Tucker, chair of the Muscogee Nation of Florida. “We have waited long enough for a broken process to determine our fate.”

Members of the Muscogee began their drive for recognition in 1978 and are now among 15 Indian groups waiting for a final determination. Those include five in California, three in Louisiana and others in Michigan, New York, Georgia, North Carolina, Wisconsin and New Mexico.

Another 80 Indian groups remain mired in the early stages of a federal process that can cost millions of dollars to navigate — far more than some can afford.

During a U.S. Senate oversight hearing Wednesday, the man who oversees the recognition process agreed new rules need to be put in place to fix a process several senators called “broken.”

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