Michigan Supreme Court candidate Megan Kathleen Cavanagh didn’t plan on a law career when she was a high school student in East Lansing. With a dad like Michael Cavanagh, Michigan’s longest-serving Supreme Court justice, plus about 20 first cousins who are lawyers, she was steered away from the family business.
“It was my dad who sort of discouraged going to law school, saying, ‘With that many lawyers, we’re sort of a useless family.’ He said we need somebody who can actually fix things,” she said with a laugh.
Cavanagh enjoyed her first career as an environmental engineer, but found her true passion was law soon after she began taking evening classes at Wayne State University Law School.
Cavanagh has worked in appellate law for 15 years, not only as an appellate attorney for the law firm of Garan Lucow Miller P.C. where she is a shareholder, but also in other organizations through the state bar and the Attorney Grievance Commission, as well as with appellate judges “to make appellate law, and the appellate legal system work the way that it should.”
She has represented a wide range of clients before both the state and federal appellate courts, and has earned honors that include Lawyer of the Year in 2006 and Outstanding Woman in the Law in 2017.
An LGBTQ-Supportive Career
Cavanagh’s career as an appellate attorney has included civil defense cases involving the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, Title VII equal protection claims — referring to Title VII of the of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on a number of protected classes, including sex — and 14th Amendment due process claims. Although those cases were related to certain protected classes not involving the LGBTQ community specifically, Cavanagh is well-versed on legal issues that impact LGBTQ Michiganders.
She spoke of her experience in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, witnessing the proceedings of a case that originated in Michigan, EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes. In that case, funeral director Aimee Stephens was fired when she came out as transgender at work. Cavanagh was in that court to make an argument for a different case, but she took interest and provided that as an example of a court where individual protections still matter.
“It was a fascinating argument and the three judges were a really good draw for the EEOC and the ACLU’s case. There are some very thoughtful judges who still exist on the federal court, who approach things from looking at protecting individual rights,” she said of the judges who issued that ruling.
That ruling overturned a lower court’s decision and affirmed that transgender individuals are protected by federal sex discrimination laws, and that religious belief does not give employers the right to discriminate against them.
Still, Cavanagh emphasizes, “I don’t want it ever to be taken as saying, ‘I will always vote for a plaintiff or I will always vote for one side or the other,’ because that’s equally as bad as what’s going on on the other side.”
In her view, courts should remain independent, “So that you know you’re going to stand on equal footing.”
Cavanagh cited that court, the Sixth Circuit, as an exception to the trend of the federal courts swinging ideologically to the right. Because of that, she says, our state courts matter now more than ever.
“I think federal court used to be — and it’s becoming less so now — the place where you would go for protection of individual rights,” she said. “With the bench shifting more on the conservative side, it’s not that place to look for those protections so much anymore, which makes the state courts that much more important.”
Running for a Seat
With her extensive experience in appellate law, what made the most sense to Cavanagh was to run for a seat on the state’s highest appellate court, one of two seats that are up for election this November. While the judiciary is nonpartisan, Michigan Supreme Court candidates are nominated by political party.
According to Cavanagh, who was nominated by the Democratic Party and is running with Sam Bagenstos, it’s not a perfect system.
“I don’t think the mere fact that the candidates are nominated by the party means they’re influenced by the political party,” she said. “I think that rests on the candidates, to make sure that’s not the case.”
For that reason, Cavanagh believes the elective system is preferable to the appointive system for choosing state Supreme Court justices — a conclusion she reached after she began her campaign. Appointments to the Supreme Court are made by the governor when a sitting justice steps down mid-term and there is a vacancy; they are then up for consideration at the next general election. Currently in Michigan, four of seven justices were appointed by Governor Rick Snyder, two of whom are up for election.
“I wanted to run for the Court because I think it’s important for voters to know who they’re electing to the court,” Cavanagh said. “I think it’s important that the people who are voting for them have an opportunity to meet them, and the candidate has to get out and explain why they should vote for them.”
As Cavanagh sees it, the bigger problem of political influence in judicial races is the influx of dark money, whereby the public isn’t aware of who is contributing to judicial races. Although she believes the reality is otherwise, the mere perception that that judges are making decisions based on promises made to donors is damaging.
Along with ensuring an independent, nonpartisan judicial system, judges must be open to hearing from parties whose lives may be impacted by the Court’s decisions. And that includes the LGBTQ community.
State of LGBTQ Civil Rights
Cavanagh spoke of the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act, regarding the May decision by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission to begin hearing cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Attorney General Bill Schuette challenged their authority to make that interpretation; the MCRC communicated they would ignore Schuette’s opinion.
“I think the federal courts have looked at it, that issue, in terms of Title VII,” she said. “… the Sixth Circuit case [EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes] held that it does, Title VII does prohibit discrimination as written, ‘because of sex’ includes gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination, and so I think the [Michigan] Supreme Court is gonna have to decide whether or not the existing statute does that, or if it gets changed or amended.”
Cavanagh brought up another case impacting LGBTQ Michiganders, one that dealt a blow to many in the community, and then offered her own take on it. In 2016, Mabry v. Mabry asked judges to adopt the equitable parent doctrine. This would have ensured parenting rights to parents of nonbiological children — specifically, same-sex couples who adopted children before the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban in Obergefell v. Hodges.
The Michigan Supreme Court refused to take an appeal of the lower court decision, and effectively swept it under the rug. While she cannot take a position, Cavanagh disagreed with the majority’s refusal to hear the case.
“It was something that should have been looked at in light of Obergefell, because that changed the definition of what was legal, and what wasn’t,” Cavanagh said. “And not saying one way or the other how it would end up, [but] that’s an important case that affects a lot of people that I think the state deserves a decision on. And an informed decision … where you get the opportunity to have all of these things aired out, and perspectives heard.”
A Desire for Diversity
For Cavanagh, the desire to hear diverse opinions extends to her campaign. For instance, over the summer, she attended a number of pride festivals.
“I think it’s important to know who it is who’s electing you, [to] know the public, the full gamut of the … citizens in Michigan,” she said. “I also think that’s the way to understand what their perspective is, because the role, I think, of a judge is to know what you don’t know, listen to people who do … and give it value. And that’s why I have been trying with [the] LGBT community, to go to events and hear what their issues are and what’s important to them.”
Open-mindedness and recognizing the need “to know what you don’t know” are values that begin at home for the Cavanaghs, who reside in Birmingham. And she said it’s something she’s trying to instill in her daughters, ages 9 and 12.
“I’m sort of constantly — probably annoyingly so to them — trying to get them outside of their bubble, seeing things from other people’s perspectives,” she said.
Cavanagh has brought them along when she argued cases before the Michigan Supreme Court, because she wants her children to see “that what you do for a job or a career should be fulfilling your desires, but also serving something bigger than just yourself.”
To further illustrate how she teaches her daughters to see from others’ perspectives, Cavanagh shared how she spoke with them about the transgender son of one of her best friends. They knew the child from toddlerhood, and her girls had questions when he transitioned. Cavanagh had questions, too.
“My kids are like, ‘What does that mean?’” she said, “We spent a lot of time talking about it. And more importantly, I asked my friend, ‘You tell me how to talk about it. You tell me what matters to you. You tell me what will help him or what he needs.’ … I think you have to have an openness and a willingness to consider things outside of your own [self]. I think you have to expose yourself to that, and I think it’s important that my kids are exposed to that, too.”
Cavanagh said she is running for Supreme Court so that all Michiganders have a voice, and while judicial candidates shouldn’t telegraph their political opinions, Cavanagh frankly expressed her nonpartisan conviction that members of the LGBTQ community have the right to equal protection and equal treatment under the law.
“I don’t view it as a political issue,” she said. “I think it’s fundamentally a human issue. … I don’t mean to sound sort of Pollyannaish, but it’s just a nonstarter. It’s not a hard issue for me. And I think what’s also important is yes, you want someone like that on the court, but I think again you want justices who are willing to listen … and who are of the perspective [that] more information and more perspectives lead to better decisions.”