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UPDATED: Michigan same-sex marriages blocked

UPDATE Saturday 5:31 p.m.  After same-sex couples began to obtain marriage licenses and were married, the Sixth Circuit on Saturday afternoon temporarily blocked the judge’s order permitting those marriages.  It did so to give the court of appeals time to consider the state’s plea for a postponement during appeal.  The Saturday order will keep the issue on hold through Wednesday; a response to the state’s plea is due Tuesday.  News reports in Michigan said that more than three hundred licenses were issued to gay or lesbian couples, and some fifty marriages were performed.


After a full courtroom trial on the issue — only the third in history — a federal judge in Detroit on Friday struck down Michigan’s ten-year-old, voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.  In a thirty-one-page decision, Senior District Judge Bernard A. Friedman ruled that Michigan can no longer enforce a ban that had won ballot approval by a fifty-nine to forty-one-percent margin in 2004.  (UPDATE: State officials quickly filed a notice that they will appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and then asked the court of appeals to put the judge’s ruling on hold while the appeal goes forward.)

The judge said he was relying upon “the enduring principle that regardless of whoever finds favor in the eyes of the most recent majority, the [constitutional] guarantee of equal protection must prevail.”  He found that the ban violated the right to equality of a lesbian couple, April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, both nurses in Detroit hospitals.  He did not rule on their separate claim that the ban violated their right to “due process.”

Although the outcome in this case followed a string of rulings by other federal trial judges striking down other states’ bans, Judge Friedman’s ruling was the first in that series which followed a full courtroom trial.  The other decisions have come on pleas for temporary or preliminary rulings, based primarily upon legal arguments.

This was the first full-scale trial since the Supreme Court’s decision last June in United States v. Windsor, finding unconstitutional the federal Defense of Marriage Act’s ban on federal marital benefits for gay and lesbian couples.  Although the Windsor decision expressly avoided ruling on the validity of same-sex marriage bans, as such, the reasoning of the majority in that ruling has been cited repeatedly by federal judges since then in dealing with state laws or constitutional provisions against such marriages.  Judge Friedman, too, relied upon that reasoning.

There have been two other trials in history on the validity of same-sex marriage bans — one in Hawaii in 1996 (a state where same-sex marriage rights have since been alternatively banned and then granted), and the trial in federal court in California in 2010 that led to a decision striking down that state’s “Proposition 8” ban.  The California ban ended when the Supreme Court refused last June to decide the merits of an appeal by the ban’s ballot measure proponents.

Judge Friedman had heard testimony from sociological experts on both sides of the same-sex marriage question.  He wound up giving “great weight” to the testimony of experts whose studies generally provided support for same-sex marriage, and flatly rejected as unsound the testimony of experts claiming that such marriages would harm children raises in such households.

State officials had defended the Michigan ban with three arguments, and the judge rejected all of them, finding that none provided any justification for the ban.  He applied the most easily satisfied constitutional test — “rational basis” — in doing so.

Those arguments by the state were that the ban helped preserve an “optimal environment” for child-rearing, that it was based upon the need to proceed cautiously before abandoning opposite-sex marriage as the standard, that it supported both “tradition and morality,” and that it was based upon the state’s basic authority to define who may marry.

Although some of the other judges who have nullified state same-sex marriage bans have put their rulings on hold while state officials pursued appeals in higher courts, Judge Friedman did not do so.  He issued an order permanently barring state officials from enforcing the state constitutional ban and state laws that implemented it.

Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, UPDATED: Michigan same-sex marriages blocked, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 22, 2014, 5:31 PM),