The day that many Michigan residents have been waiting for has arrived. On March 21, 2014, after an 8 day trial, Federal District Court Judge Bernard Friedman (a Reagan appointee) has declared the Michigan Marriage Act (MMA) unconstitutional. While the effect of the decision was stayed by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals on March 22, 2014, the opinion itself will be difficult to overturn.
The trial focused on the impact of the state’s gay marriage ban on children. The Plaintiffs, a lesbian couple who sought to jointly adopt each others’ children, presented evidence that the MMA promoted instability for the children of gay couples. Their experts testified that there was no statistical difference in the academic success and life achievement of children in stable homes whether their parents were homosexual or heterosexual. And they demonstrated the great harm that can come when the legal parent of a child dies or is incapacitated.
The state defendants (Governor Rick Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette) argued that the optimal situation for children is to be raised by a married heterosexual couple.
But Judge Friedman’s opinion entirely discredited the state’s witnesses. Calling one witness, sociologist Mark Regnerus, “entirely unbelievable” and the others unworthy of any weight, the court systematically eliminated all the supporting evidence provided by the state.
Then he turned to the proposed reasons for the law. Applying the lowest possible standard, the one in which the state was most likely to succeed, Judge Friedman found that there was no rational explanation for the law that would pass constitutional muster. The state proposed 4 explanations:
1. Optimal Environment
The court said that there was no demonstrated difference between children raised by heterosexual and homosexual couples. Even if there was, the state does not limit marriages based on the couple’s parental optimization.
2. Proceeding With Caution
Judge Friedman essentially said that where Constitutional rights are concerned, caution is no excuse. He refused to allow the state “sit idly while social science research takes its plodding and deliberative course.”
3. Tradition & Morality
The court said that tradition alone is not enough, and that “moral disapproval is not a sufficient rationale for upholding a provision of law on equal protection grounds.”
4. States’ Rights
Nor was Judge Friedman convinced that the state had the ultimate authority when it came to weddings. He held that the Constitution trumped the state’s interest in regulating marriages, stating
“[W]ithout some overriding legitimate interest, the state cannot use its domestic relations authority to legislate families out of existence.”
This is a very strong opinion with evidence to support the ruling. The court’s systematic evaluation of the witnesses’ credibility and legal arguments in this case will make it less likely to be overturned on appeal. Appeals courts give a lot of credit to judges who were there to actually see and hear the testimony. They won’t overturn factual decisions unless there has been an “abuse of discretion.”
If you are a gay or lesbian couple trying to decide your next course of action, contact Attorney Lisa J. Schmidt for a consultation.