6th Circuit Hears Michigan Same-Sex Marriage Appeal

Aug 7, 2014

Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer on the steps of the federal courthouse in Cincinnati before the 6th Circuit US Court of Appeals hears arguments in their challenge to Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban.
Credit Rick Pluta / Michigan Public Radio Network

  The future of Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage is in the hands of a federal appeals court. Michigan was one of four states before the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati Wednesday, arguing to keep their bans in place.

If the Potter Stewart Federal Courthouse had a theater marquee, it might have proclaimed a full-fledged “Legalpalooza” with six cases from four states playing in one marathon session. Some people, about a half a dozen, even spent the night outside the courthouse in hopes of getting a seat to the show.

Frank Colasonti Jr. from Michigan, specifically Birmingham, in Oakland County. Colasonti and his partner were among the roughly 300 couples married during the brief window after a federal judge struck down Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban, and before the Sixth Circuit put a stop to it. Colasonti says he showed up in the afternoon to get in line and then just never left.

“I wanted to make sure I had an opportunity to go into the courtroom, and visually see the arguments,” he says.

Colasonti’s wait paid off. He got to trade a concrete stoop for a packed courtroom’s paneled walls, red carpet, wooden benches, and three hours of legal arguments. Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee all had cases before a three-judge panel. In each case, the state is challenging a lower court’s ruling that it must recognize same-sex marriages.

Michigan Up First

“It is a fundamental premise of our democratic system that the people can be trusted to decide even divisive issues on decent and rational grounds,” said Michigan Solicitor General Aaron Lindstrom as he defended the state’s same-sex marriage ban, which was adopted by voters ten years ago. He said courts should defer to those voters.

“That’s what this case is about – who gets to decide what the definition of marriage is, not what that definition must be.”     

Lindstrom said if public opinion on same-sex marriage is changing, then the political process is how that should be handled.

But that just takes too long, said attorney Carole Stanyar. She urged the appeals court to strike down the marriage bans because they hurt families.

“These bans humiliate children,” she argued. “They devalue same-sex couple families in comparison with their opposite-sex counterparts. The bans bring shame to these children.” 

Stanyar said that’s on top of the financial and legal complications that face same-sex couples in states with marriage bans.

“We know better now,” she says. “There’s no reason to treat people this way.”

Joint Adoption

The couple that challenged Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban was also at the courthouse. April DeBoer and her partner, Jayne Rowse, want the right to marry so they can adopt the special needs children they’re raising.

“We’re excited for today, hearing the arguments and the decision and being one step closer to being a legal family,” she says.

Waiting For A Decision

That decision from the Sixth Circuit will probably take weeks, if not months, says John Bursch, the former Michigan solicitor general, now in private practice. He’s argued numerous times before the Sixth Circuit and eight times before the United States Supreme Court.

He says the judges typically talk about the case right after the arguments.

“And they decide how they’re going to vote in the case, and if the judges can’t agree on the case, there might be multiple opinions,” he says. “That process usually takes anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months. In a big important case like this, it’s unlikely they’d release their written decision in less than a month.”

But once they do, that could set these cases on a path to the United States Supreme Court, which last summer granted federal recognition of same-sex couples. Or the appeals court could wait to see what happens with some other same-sex marriage case. John Bursch just filed a motion with the Supreme Court on behalf of Utah seeking to uphold that state’s same-sex marriage ban.