Michigan Supremes and DP Benefits

I took some time today watching government at work. I was going to say “in action” but things don't move that fast.

Prompted by Triangle Foundation I went to Lansing today to observe the Michigan Supreme Court as they heard oral arguments on whether domestic partner benefits are banned by Michigan's Marriage Protection Amendment. Triangle felt it would be good to pack the gallery with gays so that the justices could see faces of people who would be affected.

They succeeded a bit too well. This case was third on the docket and Triangle suspected that arguments would begin at 11:00 so suggested we arrive before 10:30. Turns out that the 100+ seats in the gallery were filled shortly after the court session started at 9:30 (I think the security guards were a bit surprised, I'm sure most cases draw few spectators). I was shown a conference room that was displaying a live feed from the court and by the end of debate on this case there were at least 25 people in the conference room. The hearings began at 10:30 and were over by 11:30.

There were three speakers before the court: the lawyer from Pride at Work, the Governor's lawyer, and the Assistant Attorney General. The reason for the Gov's lawyer is that she (a Democrat and pro-gay) disagrees with the Attorney General (a Republican) on this case and she wanted it clear that though he represents the “official” state position he does not represent her. Gov. Granholm had supported DP benefits in state worker contracts before the amendment took effect.

I won't attempt to try to reproduce the hour's worth of arguments. I'm sure you can read them in Between The Lines at http://www.pridesour… this Friday or next.

But I was struck by the general tone of the comments on both sides. The anti-gay side projected the idea that gay relationships are just like straight ones and because we must protect marriage (as the amendment says) we can't allow any legal recognition of those relationships. It may not look like DP benefits are similar to marriage but (using the old camel's-nose-under-the tent argument) give them enough legal recognition and they'll look just like marriage, which the amendment bans. The criteria for DP benefits even matches the criteria for marriage except for the gender of the participants.

Meanwhile the pro-gay speakers projected the idea that gay relationships aren't anything special, nope, not at all. We're just after a measly little bit of recognition from out employer (the state) but there are other kinds of relationships with economic dependence that are just as valid and those are nothing like marriage, so this isn't either.

The justices had no problem interrupting the speakers with questions. Two justices asked most of the questions, though by the end I think we heard from 5 of the 7. I don't recognize the names well enough to tell whether the most talkative were GOP or Dem.

As with the US Supremes, the actual ruling by the court won't be given for several months. I thought the justices asked pointed questions of both sides, so didn't get a sense of intention from them. But since the court is 4 GOP to 3 Dem (and the GOP members are quite conservative) I doubt they'll rule in our favor. Even so, various institutions (such as MSU) have rewritten their DP benefit requirements so that they aren't only for gay couples. This was referred to in one question by a justice to the pro- gay speaker — if you can get DP benefits in this way why are you in front of us? Answer: DP benefits are only one of many issues that might be affected by the amendment.