Megan Cottington-Heath, an attorney who owns a family law practice, calls it the worst divorce she’s ever seen. The candidate for an open seat on the Saginaw County Circuit Court made that assessment after reading the huge, decades-old file detailing her parents’ breakup that began formally when Cottington-Heath was 9 but didn’t end until she was 12.
“It was just very, very nasty,” recalled Cottington-Heath, who is 38 and married to a Saginaw firefighter. The couple have three children. “They fought over just ridiculous things. And I feel like my parents did the best they could — they were young — but I also feel like the system kind of pits parents against each other right away. And that automatically makes things adversarial.”
It wasn’t just her parents’ fighting that affected her in that courtroom.
“I knew that I had an experience where I actually spoke with the judge and he didn't hear me,” she told Pride Source. “I feel like I wasn't listened to. And it happened more than once. And so when I was a kid, I thought, well, I want to be a family law judge.”
Cottington-Heath explained how divorce is a trauma that is experienced in the body as such. Knowing that, it’s her job as an attorney not to add fuel to the fire, as she has witnessed in court all too often. She acknowledged there’s a lot of good that can come of a divorce — especially in the case of an abusive relationship.
“I wish we didn't say ‘divorce,’” she said. “I wish we said ‘decoupling.’ And I wish we didn't do ‘plaintiff versus defendant.’ I wish we did something like, in the matter of this family, how do we separate this family in a way that we can have peace for them going forward?”
As a married lesbian who practices family law, and whose wife was not a legal parent to their two oldest children until they were more than a year old, Cottington-Heath believes she has a unique view of family law. Simply put, she has experience working with all different kinds of families — including her own.
“I mean, we're in the 21st century,” said Cottington-Heath, who earned an undergraduate degree from Central Michigan University and a juris doctorate from Michigan State University. “We've got moms and dads raising kids, but we also have moms single by choice and dads single by choice or moms single, dads single. We have grandparents; we have aunts and uncles; we have foster parents there; we have guardians; there are all sorts of different families nowadays. And frankly, the court systems don't even try to understand anything other than a heteronormative family type of situation.”
In terms of being inclusive, the court has an issue with pronouns, too. Referring to individuals in the courtroom by their personal pronouns has been an uphill battle, noted Cottington-Heath. And she would make this a priority, if elected.
With the tagline “Fair, Impartial, Kind,” Cottington-Heath is making her name known in the Saginaw community, particularly after the headline in a local publication reported she’d be the first openly LGBTQ+ circuit court judge in the county. While some in the general population find the existence of lesbians triggering, it should be stated, for those who didn’t get the memo, that Cottington-Heath does not hate men. Unfortunately, she’s been faced with challenging this homophobic stereotype on a regular basis.
Cottington-Heath represents change, and for some that’s uncomfortable. “From day one, I have said I will be there Monday through Friday, 8:00 to 5:00. And I don't know why that makes people so angry," she said, laughing. "But it does.”
To drive home the point, Cottington-Heath’s website states she will not be found on the golf course during business hours. So-called “cattle calls” in which she has observed 76 hearings in one day will come to an end if she is elected. And until now, it’s been the upper echelon, or the “haves,” in Saginaw County who call the shots. She calls her opponent, Brittany Dicken, one of the haves.
The viewpoint of a working-class person is what’s missing from the court right now, Cottington-Heath said, whose opponent comes from an affluent family — much like the other judges currently on the court.
“The day after the primary election, she got on a private jet and flew to Traverse City,” Cottington-Heath said of her opponent. “If I had billions of dollars, I would not fly to Traverse City. It's a two-hour drive from Saginaw. But that's the kind of disconnect.” (In response, Dicken told Pride Source, "This statement is completely false and lacks any factual basis. The presumptions made on the basis of this statement are also inaccurate.")
Cottington-Heath believes that everyone, regardless of income, should have access to fair justice. In recognition of that commitment, Cottington-Heath won the Holli Wallace Pro Bono attorney of the year award in 2019.
Some would consider this judgeship a stepping stone. But she isn’t looking toward the next big opportunity. She’s had her eyes on the prize since age 12 (you may ask her family, she says) and only wishes to sit in that seat, helping families find amicable solutions, until she is no longer elected or no longer relevant. By relevant, Cottington-Heath notes the roughly 30-year difference between the current judges’ ages and the ages of the average couple seeking a divorce. When it’s time to retire, she’ll do so.
An avid rock hound who enjoys performing stand-up comedy, Cottington-Heath believes some voters neglect to educate themselves on their entire ballot, the judicial candidates in particular. “I don't know how many people will say, ‘Well, I've never actually looked into it,’” she said about conversations that occur while canvassing. “'I'm so glad you came to my door because I didn't even know; I never even really think about the judges. I just kind of guess.’
“We've found out recently the hard way what happens when judges make decisions that change history,” she added. “They don't just pop out of nowhere. All the judges on our U.S. Supreme Court didn't just pop up out of nowhere. They started somewhere. They started at this level that I'm at.”
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8. Early voting began Sept. 29.