By Shoham Geva, Summer Managing News Editor
Published August 6, 2014
Wednesday, the 6th Circuit Court heard oral arguments in six pending cases from four different states concerning the legality of gay marriage, including one case from Michigan.
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DeBoer v. Snyder, filed in 2012, which began as a case against Michigan’s ban on adoption by same-sex couples and evolved into a challenge to the state’s overall ban on gay marriage, is one of two cases out of the six to directly address legalization of marriage. The other four address general recognition of same-sex marriages performed outside of the state and recognition for the purposes of issuing death and birth certificates.
Jay Kaplan, ACLU Michigan’s LGBT Legal Project staff attorney, said when it comes to the circuit court trial, Michigan’s situation among the four states is distinctive for several reasons.
“What’s unique about Michigan’s decision is that unlike most of the state federal court challenges, Michigan had a full fledged trial with witnesses, expert witnesses, and testimony, so the judge made some findings of fact, and I think it makes it a stronger decision,” Kaplan said. “An appellate court, they can reverse based on findings of law, but not findings of fact.”
In opening arguments on the DeBoer case, attorneys for the defense, in favor of the ban, characterized the case as a question of voter’s rights. Michigan’s gay marriage ban was instituted in 2004 as a statewide ballot proposal.
“It is a fundamental premise of our democratic system that the people can be trusted to decide even divisive issues, on rational grounds, and that’s what this case is about,” Michigan’s Solicitor General Aaron Lindstrom told the court.
Attorneys for the defense, in contrast, described the case as remedying an unconstitutionally exclusionary policy.
“We are not asking to redefine the marital relationship,” Carole Stanyer, attorney for the plaintiffs, told the court. “We are only asking for an end to the exclusion of same-sex couples from the right to marry.”
It is common for courts to stay decision at this level when an appeal to the Supreme Court is expected. However, similar to the outcome of the original decision on the case in favor of DeBoer, which launched an almost day-long period during which multiple county clerks across the state, including in Ann Arbor, married about 300 same-sex couples before late in the evening of the same day Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s (R) request for an emergency stay on the decision was granted, some marriages could occur as a result.
Sandi Smith, president of the Jim Toy Community Center, a Washtenaw County organization which is a self-described local resource for LGBTQ individuals and their allies, said locally the district court’s decision saw a huge reaction, especially in terms of couples waiting to get married.
Because the 6th Circuit’s decision is expected to be stayed, she said the impact she expects from the 6th Circuit’s eventual decision is similar to the outcome of the March case at the district level.
“We have an opportunity for perhaps a window where marriages again can resume, and be recognized and be legal in the state of Michigan,” she said.
The 300 marriages performed after the district court decision are currently in a legal limbo following the emergency stay. The American Civil Liberties Union’s Michigan branch has sued on behalf of the couples married in the interim between the decision and the emergency stay, and asked that the state recognize the marriages. Governor Rick Snyder’s (R) official position has been to not recognize the marriages. A hearing for the issue is set for Aug. 21.
The 6th Circuit case is set to run through at least the next several weeks. Several similar cases have been already been decided across the country, all in favor of same-sex marriage or aspects of recognition of it, and two more circuit courts have dates set to hear additional cases. Thus far, the 6th Circuit is the only region to hear appeals on the issue from all states in its jurisdiction.
Along with the short-term impacts of a potential window where gay marriage is legal, the case also has several longer term impacts.
Will Sherry, associate director of the Spectrum Center, said a frequent topic of discussion at the Center is how restrictive policies are in states graduates are concerning, especially when it comes to staying in Michigan.
“We often, and always are talking to our students about graduation, about what are the policies and laws in any state that you’re going to,” he said. “Absolutely, for students, marriage is something that they want as an option, now or later. I think that always affects where students see themselves getting a job.”
Sherry added that while the University has done a good job of providing access to benefits to staff, faculty and students, making it an attractive place for a lot of people to be, the state’s overall policies still leave room for improvement.
“There’s always impact when you live in a state that doesn’t provide the civil rights that other states have, “ he said. “To have policies that support people who promote equality has an impact. It says something about what you believe in.”