When a federal judge overturned Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage last March, over 300 couples legally married before the Sixth Circuit issued a stay. The state decreed that those marriages were invalidated even though the federal government agreed to recognize them, and several of the couples sued for recognition. Though the Sixth Circuit has since upheld Michigan’s marriage ban, a federal judge ruled Thursday that the couples who married get to stay married.
United States District Judge Mark Goldsmith, an Obama appointee, wrote a thorough opinion explaining why the couples’ must remain intact. Though he included a 21-day stay to allow for appeal, he issued an injunction recognizing the marriages of all 322 couples, not just the eight who filed the suit.
In addition to intangible harms like disappointment and loss of dignity, Goldsmith outlined many tangible harms the couples experienced, including denied health insurance benefits, inability to adopt children together, and loss of spousal-pension benefits, state income-tax benefits, and financial-aid benefits. “To state the obvious,” he wrote, “two people whose marriage was validly solemnized, but who are not permitted to enjoy any of the benefits or rights of married people, are unquestionably the functional equivalent of unmarried people,” a point the state did not dispute.
Goldsmith proceeded to outline a thorough precedent for how “the right to the continued validity of a marriage is ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s tradition,’” so long as it was legal in the state at the time it was solemnized. It doesn’t matter what has transpired in the case that legalized same-sex marriage in the first place, including the fact that it has since been overturned. That was nevertheless Michigan’s primary argument, that the marriages can only survive if the decision to authorize them is upheld (“void ab initio”).
If this legal theory were upheld, however, it would have disturbing consequences throughout all other kinds of case law. “In fact, there is a long-established principle that the reversal of a judgment on appeal will not affect the rights of non-parties who acted in good-faith reliance on the judgment,” Goldsmith explained. In one example he highlighted, a decision that had to do with racial discrimination in police hiring was later reversed, but the reversal did not require that officers who were hired or promoted based on the initial decision then be fired or demoted. He also pointed out that individuals who did not abide an injunction can still be held in contempt even if it is later reversed.
The stay in the case upholding Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage also does not apply, Goldsmith concluded, because it did not address marriages performed in Michigan. Though the Sixth Circuit’s reversal addressed states’ sovereignty to not recognize a marriage performed in another state, it in no way addressed the matter of a marriage performed in the state itself.
“Plaintiffs present a compelling case of loss of dignity and devastating emotional trauma,” Goldsmith concluded. “Same-sex couples, like their opposite-sex-couple counterparts, have the same innately human impulse to maintain bonds of committed intimacy in a socially and legally recognized marriage. The non-recognition policy frustrates that impulse and triggers a deeply felt sense of degradation from the loss of marital status caused by the state that solemnized it in the first instance.”
The decision mirrors two other previous court rulings recognizing valid same-sex marriages. In 2009, the California Supreme Court ruled that the 18,000 same-sex couples who had legally married before Proposition 8 passed could continue to have their marriages recognized. Likewise, last May, a federal judge ruled that Utah had to recognize the 1,300 same-sex couples who similarly had entered “window” marriages before a court stay, even though that stay was still in place. Both of those states now enjoy full marriage equality for all couples.
The Supreme Court could decide as soon as Friday whether to take up one of the many same-sex marriage cases before it, including Michigan’s. The Sixth Circuit could, however, allow the decision impacting these 322 couples to take effect in the meantime.