On February 1, 2007, the Michigan Court of Appeals released its Opinion in National Pride at Work, Inc v Governor, Docket No. 265870. There were 63 parties in this case.
The issue in this case was whether public universities and governmental entities within the State of Michigan could extend benefits such as healthcare insurance to same-sex / domestic partners of their employees. Michigan’s Attorney General Michael Cox appealed the Ingham county Circuit court’s decision that the marriage amendment, article 1, section 25 of the Michigan constitution, did not preclude public employers from extending same sex-domestic partnership benefits. The Court of Appeals reversed.
It was not hard to see where the court was going with its decision. An extensive prefatory comment made the court’s position clear:
“We begin by noting the relatively significant public attention this case has received. In that context, we feel constrained to observe at the outset that this case is not about the lifestyle or personal living decisions of individual citizens. Rather, it is about whether the marriage amendment may permissibly impose certain limitations on the state and its governmental subdivisions. More specifically, this case is about whether the marriage amendment may prohibit governmental subdivisions from entering into employment benefit agreements that define eligibility for benefits using criteria, based on lifestyle or personal living decisions that allegedly violate the policy choice approved in the marriage amendment. Further, we observe that the arguments advanced in several of the amicus briefs regarding the effect of the amendment on employee recruitment, retention and morale, and marketplace competitiveness are irrelevant considerations in interpreting the constitutional amendment at issue. The vote to adopt the marriage amendment charted the policy direction for Michigan. Our decision only interprets the amendment and applies it as interpreted to this particular situation presented in this case. Finally, we note that our interpretation of the language of the marriage amendment is one of first impression, insofar as it concerns a relatively unique phraseology. Thus, while other states have adopted constitutional amendments and/or statutes that place limitations on governmental recognition of same-sex relationships, no court in any of these states has had the occasion to interpret language approximating the “similar union” language found in Michigan’s marriage amendment. Consequently, guidance from the decisions of other jurisdictions is unavailing.”
The court rejected the plaintiff-appellee’s arguments about social concerns and changing societal norms as irrelevant, choosing to decide this case strictly on black letter law. The court stated that “the primary objective of constitutional interpretation is to realize the intent of the people by whom and for whom the constitution was ratified. Generally, a court discerns the common understanding of constitutional text by applying each term’s plain meaning at the time of ratification, but if the constitution employs technical legal terms, it must construe those words in their technical, legal sense.”
The court made it clear that its decision rested upon the public policy of the State that favors marriage as a unique relationship and a civil contract between a man and a woman which has been licensed and solemnized. Further, the court emphasized that ‘[t]he marital contract affects public interests, and it is afforded special legal status. Marriage invokes legal rights, responsibilities and benefits not afforded to unmarried persons.”
The court rejected arguments by the University of Michigan Board of Regents, Wayne State University, Washtenaw County, Ingham County, and the City of Ann Arbor, holding that their recognition of domestic partnership agreements by employee and same-sex partners violates the constitutional prohibition against the recognition of nonmarital unions. The court held that autonomous governing boards of Michigan's public universities are subject to the public policy mandate of the constitutional prohibition against the recognition of same-sex marriage, rejecting the universities’ argument that they were entitled to constitutional independence.
Additionally, the court held that a home rule city remains subject to the constitution and laws of the state. The court expressly rejected the city’s argument that the constitutional prohibition in the marriage amendment conflicted with the city’s statutory authority to voluntarily provide for health care benefits for the same-sex domestic partners of employees. The same rationale was applied to Michigan counties.
Read the full opinion in National Pride at Work v Governor here.
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