October 16, 2013 at 7:43 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Will Mich. judge make a surprise ruling for marriage equality?
National LGBT Bar Association, Gay News, Washington Blade

A federal judge in Michigan could issue a surprise ruling on Wednesday in favor of marriage rights for gay couples. (Image via wikimedia).

The national landscape for marriage equality could change abruptly following oral arguments in a Michigan lawsuit on Wednesday if the federal judge presiding over the case issues a decision saying gay couples should be able to wed in the state.

The U.S. District Court for Eastern District of Michigan is set to hear arguments in the case of DeBoer v. Snyder, a lawsuit filed by private attorneys that seeks to overturn the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage approved by Michigan voters in 2004.

Because requests for summary judgment were filed by both the plaintiffs and the state, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman could issue a decision immediately after he hears arguments in the courtroom.

Dana Nessel, one of four private attorneys representing the lesbian plaintiff couple in the lawsuit, said she’s “very hopeful” at the end of arguments Friedman will issue a ruling against the marriage ban in Michigan.

“We don’t know that that’s going to happen, but certainly, we’d be thrilled to have a resolution to this case as early as possible,” Nessel said. “This case has been pending for a very long time, and there are hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands, of LGBT couples in this state that have been awaiting a ruling in this case.”

The case was filed in January 2012 by a lesbian couple, April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, in Hazel Park, Mich., who were seeking a ruling granting them the ability to adopt their three children.

Michigan law has no explicit ban on gay adoption, but restricts adoptions to either single persons or married couples. Meanwhile, the Michigan marriage law restricts the state’s legal definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples. Some judges have interpreted that to mean gay couples can’t adopt because they’re unable to marry.

After Friedman reviewed the case last year, he suggested to the couple that they were actually seeking the right to marry because the right to adopt in the state was tied to marriage. The couple amended their case in March to seek marriage equality in Michigan, while still pursuing their goal of adoption rights, on the basis that the marriage ban violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Jay Kaplan, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Michigan, said the judge may decide to wait beyond the day of oral arguments — perhaps indeterminately — to issue a decision on marriage, and could ultimately avoid the marriage issue altogether in his decision.

“There are many different scenarios that could happen here,” Kaplan said. “The judge could decide maybe just to focus in terms of the right to jointly adopt, and he could say that’s separate from the issue of marriage, or he could decide it’s tied to the issue of marriage and could also then decide to deny the right to marry is unconstitutional in the state of Michigan.”

It’s the first oral arguments in federal court after the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act. Presenting the oral arguments on behalf of the plaintiff couple will be private attorney Carole Stanyar. The attorney arguing in favor of the ban will likely be the lead counsel representing the state, Assistant Attorney General Kristin Heyse.

One thing to watch is whether the decision in United States v. Windsor will have bearing on the judge’s questioning or any decision he issues. Although that decision struck down a law prohibiting federal recognition of same-sex marriage, state courts and attorneys general have already drawn on the language in that decision to determine that state bans on marriage equality are unconstitutional.

Nessel said the decision will be a “tremendous benefit” in efforts to lift the ban on same-sex marriage in Michigan because of Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy’s language in the ruling expressing concern for children raised by gay couples.

“Our feeling was why talk about children being raised in same-sex households in a case that didn’t involve that at all unless Justice Kennedy specifically meant for that to apply to our case, to cases like ours,” Nessel said. “There it is. Right in the Windsor decision where it didn’t have to be. There’s no reason to talk about that unless it was meant to apply to our scenario, and we think it does.”

The ACLU of Michigan, Kaplan said, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case in favor of the plaintiffs along with Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Human Rights Campaign. Prior to the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA, in December 2012 these groups urged the court to hold off on a decision on the basis that it was more “prudent” to make a decision after receiving guidance from the high court — a request the judge followed.

Another question is whether Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican who has side-stepped the issue of same-sex marriage, or Michigan State Attorney General Bill Schuette, who has a reputation for being a conservative, will appeal a ruling in favor of same-sex marriage to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Such an appeal could mean a stay on the ability of county clerks to grant licenses to gay couples despite a ruling in favor of marriage equality.

The Michigan attorney general’s office didn’t respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on Schuette’s expectations for the lawsuit or whether he would appeal a ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. Joy Yearout, spokeswoman for Schuette, told the Detroit Free Press the state would defend the marriage ban in court, but wouldn’t comment on what would happen if the court ruled in favor of marriage equality.

Kaplan predicted that Schuette would make the appeal to the Sixth Circuit because the attorney general is “no supporter of LGBT equality in our state.”

“He’s indicated that he believes things should be the status quo with regard to relationship recognition the way things exist now in our state,” Kaplan said. “Chances are that he would appeal.”

Oral arguments in the case are taking place in the Michigan lawsuit amid a slew of activities throughout the country on marriage equality following the Supreme Court decision against DOMA and California’s Proposition 8. At least 35 marriage equality lawsuits are pending in 19 states.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, an HRC spokesperson, said a ruling in favor of marriage equality from the Michigan court — even if it were appealed — would be a tremendous boon to the pursuit of marriage equality across the country.

“This is one of many cases that calls into question the irrational exclusion of lesbian and gay couples from marriage and we are hopeful that as momentum builds, these darks walls of discrimination will fall,” Cole-Schwartz said.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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