March 25, 2014 | by Chris Johnson
Appeals court halts Michigan same-sex marriages
Regnerus, gay juror, National LGBT Bar Association, Gay News, Washington Blade

The Sixth Circuit has stayed same-sex marriages in Michigan pending appeal (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals announced late Tuesday it has placed a hold on same-sex marriages in Michigan pending appeal — dashing the hopes of those who wanted the weddings to continue as litigation moved forward.

In a 2-1 decision, the majority ruled it must place a stay on ruling from U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman striking down Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage in case of DeBoer v. Snyder to conform to an earlier stay decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“There is no apparent basis to distinguish this case or to balance the equities any differently than the Supreme Court did in Kitchen,” the majority writes. “Furthermore, several district courts that have struck down laws prohibiting same-sex marriage similar to the Michigan amendment at issue here have also granted requests for stays made by state defendants.”

The U.S. Supreme Court had issued a stay on same-sex marriages in Utah pending the outcome of litigation, Kitchen v. Herbert, after a district judge struck down the state’s marriage ban and the Utah Gov. Gary Herbert sought to halt the weddings by filing a stay request.

The two judges in the majority for the stay decision were U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell, sitting by designation on the appeals court, and U.S. Circuit Judge John Rogers. U.S. Circuit Judge Helene White was sole dissent in the stay decision. Each of the judges were appointed and confirmed by former President George W. Bush during his administration.

In her dissent, White writes the stay in the Utah case isn’t controlling for the Michigan marriages and says the state didn’t make a sufficient argument that it would succeed in the case on appeal.

“Michigan has not made the requisite showing,” White writes. “Although the Supreme Court stayed the permanent injunction issued by the Utah District Court in Kitchen v. Herbert pending final disposition by the Tenth Circuit, it did so without a statement of reasons, and therefore the order provides little guidance. I would therefore apply the traditional four-factor test, which leads me to conclude that a stay is not warranted.”

Although Friedman didn’t include a stay as part of his ruling, the Sixth Circuit instituted a temporary stay on the weddings after an estimated 315 marriage licenses were distributed to same-sex couples in Ingham, Washtenaw, Muskegon and Oakland counties.

Legal experts who spoke with the Washington Blade over the weekend say they didn’t think the Sixth Circuit needed to place a stay on Michigan same-sex marriages because the Supreme Court’s stay on same-sex marriages in Utah wasn’t controlling and numerous courts have ruled in favor of marriage equality since the stay decision in that case.

In a filing before the Sixth Circuit on Tuesday, attorneys for the plaintiff same-sex couples in the case, April DeBoer and Jane Rowse, made similar arguments to make the case that the court should allow the same-sex weddings to continue pending the outcome of the litigation.

“Permitting loving same-sex couples to marry pending the outcome of this appeal will not harm the state in any way; permitting the children of loving same-sex couples to have two legally recognized parents will not harm the state in any way; permitting the children of loving same-sex couples to have two legally recognized parents will better protect these children and will keep the state from continuing to ‘impair the rights of’ these children,’” the attorneys write.

Attorneys for Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown, who assisted as a defendant in litigation against Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban, argued in a separate filing the court should reject a stay because it would harm same-sex couples living in the state.

“Couples and their families who want the legal protection and recognition of marriage will experience real harm if a stay is granted by this Court,” the attorneys write. “Defendant Brown will be forced to discriminate against couples and their families if a stay is granted. The State risks losing residents who can no longer live in a State that treats them and their families like second class citizens. They can no longer stay in a State that leaves them and their children legally vulnerable.”

But Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who’s been defending Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage, argued before the Sixth Circuit that the court must followed precedent by the Supreme Court, noting other federal judges instituted stays when striking down bans on same-sex marriage.

“As to the merits of the stay itself, none of the plaintiffs’ arguments overcome a simple fact: the Supreme Court has already addressed precisely this situation — a federal district court striking down a state marriage amendment — and concluded that a stay pending appeal was necessary,” Schuette writes.

In the event that the Sixth Circuit denied the stay pending appeal, Schuette requested a two-day temporary stay from the court so it could seek a stay from Supreme Court without same-sex marriages taking place in Michigan.

Plaintiffs in the case charged the state never formally asked for a stay from the district court, saying that was appropriate venue to ask for a stay. But in its filing, the state asserts it orally requested a stay during arguments.

Now that the Sixth Circuit has issued a stay, plaintiffs could appeal the stay decision the Supreme Court, but observers say a different outcome is unlikely.

Dana Nessel, one the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the lawsuit, said plaintiffs “have no plans to appeal” the stay decision at this time.

One lingering question is whether the state and the federal government will recognized the same-sex marriages already performed in Michigan over the weekend. In Utah, the results were split: the state elected not to recognize its marriage, but U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the federal government would recognize the unions.

Neither Michigan nor the federal government has definitively weighed on in the issue. The Associated Press quoted a spokesperson for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder as saying the state won’t yet recognize the marriages until a decision was made on the stay pending appeal, and the Justice Department told the Blade situation remains under review.

Via Twitter, Brown called on the Snyder to recognize the same-sex marriages performed in the state, suggesting if he refused to do so, voters should elect the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the 2014 election.

“When will Gov Snyder act like a leader and recognize the hundreds of MI citizens who married on Sat?” Brown tweeted. “MI needs true leadership.”

CORRECTION: An initial version of this article incorrectly reported Judge White was a Clinton appointee. She was initially named by Clinton, but wasn’t confirmed by the Senate under his administration. George W. Bush renamed her and the Senate confirmed her under his watch. The Blade regrets the error.

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

1 Comment
  • The stay makes no sense. They say that the plaintiffs suffer harm, then they issue a stay that continues the harm. Is this short-term memory loss, or a conscious strategy?

    If the stay went the other way, thousands of people would get married before the appeals process were over, and gay marriage would be instituted de facto before the judges got to decide. That would cause social and political convulsions.

    The Supreme Court only needs to hear one appeal to decide the issue for the country, but there would be divisive also.

    The federal judges in California, Utah, Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, Ohio, and Michigan, the 9th circuit court, and even the Supreme Court are all in agreement about gay marriage or some aspect of it, so there is no doubt that the final judgment would be in favor of marriage. For this reason, I think this is a conscious strategy to bring all the cases to the same point, and to avoid causing gay marriage to be instituted de facto. Then the Supreme Court can consolidate them, hear them all at once, and pronounce a national consensus.

    In fact, one of the justices made a remark during the DOMA case that hinted at that.

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