By Tom Fleischmann
SAGINAW – “The sacred institution of marriage,” claimed George W Bush in May, 2004, “should not be redefined by a few activist judges.” And he’s hardly the first politician or pundit to refer to these dangerous “activist judges.” Yet in the eyes of many, including Judge Rudy Serra, it is often the conservative judges who are taking “activist” roles these days.
Serra, who was appointed by Governor Jennifer Granholm to the 36th District Court and is the first openly-gay judge in the state, spoke to over 150 students and community members at Saginaw Valley State University last Wednesday on “The Myth of Strict Constructionist.”
Serra began his speech by outlining the history of judicial activism from its earlier and commonly associated form as a liberal tool in gaining civil rights to its current use by conservative, constructionist judges. He pointed out that activism, by definition, is a militant action.
“Conservative judges are taking militant action in favor of their doctrine despite precedent,” Serra said.
He went through several recent examples of cases that have gone before the Michigan Supreme Court in which the predominantly Republican-appointed judges used constructionist reasoning to overturn civil rights. In the examples, judges ruled that minimal protections and rights granted at the state level negated any additional rights granted by local ordinances.
“Local civil rights ordinances are no longer valid and enforceable under Michigan laws,” he said.
These new rulings are troubling for all Michigan citizens. Serra referred to an instance in which this shift in mentality has been used to counter local sexual harassment laws as well as examples of recent decisions that sided with insurance companies and not injured citizens.
“The judicial branch can be dangerous if guided by ideology,” Serra said.
This danger is of particular concern for LGBT people in Michigan, some of whom rely on added local protections and rights that will likely no longer hold up in the current Michigan Supreme Court.
Once Serra started to take questions from the audience, it became clear that his message wasn’t lost.
“Where’s the outrage?” one audience member asked him.
Serra agreed, saying that he doesn’t understand why citizens aren’t marching in the streets, demanding the court of predominantly Engler-appointees stop taking away their rights.
He also took the opportunity to praise the groups that hosted the event, citing education as a basis for activism. He offered certificates to representatives of the sponsoring organizations as a sign of his appreciation.
Leo Romo, programming coordinator of mid-Michigan LGBT group Perceptions, was excited to help share Serra’s message with the local community. “It’s the third community gay-themed event we’ve given to the tri-city area in a partnership with Saginaw Valley’s GSA and the Diversity Program Office,” he said.
The GSA at Saginaw Valley was only formed a few years ago but has continued to increase in membership and visibility.
“It’s very helpful for students to have this kind of programming on campus,” says GSA faculty advisor Lucy Mercier. “SVSU isn’t a particularly gay friendly campus, but we have several very active members who help get the word out.”
Despite a sometimes less-than-progressive student body, the administration was willing to fund the event and encourage attendance. The University President even showed up to hear Serra’s words himself.
SVSU student and GSA president Aaron Brown saw it as significant that Serra’s topic didn’t focus entirely on gay and lesbian rights, but instead broadened itself to greater concerns when civil rights are taken away.
“It reaffirms that LGBT issues affect all people,” he explained.
Mercier agreed. “It was pretty technical,” she said afterward, “but the point was clear: that we better be scared.”
For Emily and Megan, two social work students at SVSU, the point had additional importance. “We need to be more informed about the policies and laws that will affect our clients,” Emily said. They both agreed with Serra’s message that even when a civil right doesn’t directly relate to you, it can still affect you.
After his speech, Serra said that he wasn’t optimistic about the current state of LGBT rights in Michigan. “Granholm is a great governor who appoints good people,” he said, “but Engler had too much of an impact.”
Until this impact can fade as judges retire, it’s up to activists and community members to lay the groundwork for change, he said.