A virtual town hall meeting hosted by Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, who is running for reelection, and Supreme Court candidate Elizabeth Welch, took place Wednesday, Aug. 12 via Zoom. The meeting, which was moderated by newly appointed Regional Political Director for the Biden campaign and LGBT Caucus Chair for the Michigan Democratic Party Roland Leggett, also featured Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan's LGBT Project.
"We're still at a stalemate with our current legislature and the party that is in the majority is not willing to move pro-LGBT legislation forward," Kaplan said. "So, therefore, we have to rely on our executive branch to see things they have the legal ability to do as well as the courts to see what they have the ability to do. So it would be a significant step forward [to have a pro-LGBT majority on the State Supreme Court]."
Michigan State Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack agreed. McCormack, who joined the court in 2013 has been chief justice since the beginning of 2019, lamented the fact that she was short a progressive or two on the court. She also expressed her frustration at the large number of people who don't even vote for State Supreme Court justices as they appear on the back of the ballot in the nonpartisan section.
"A lot of people who vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will not cast a vote in the nonpartisan section of the ballot," she said. "So that means they're not having equal say on who sits on the State Supreme Court and that is a mistake because the Supreme Court makes incredibly important decisions that affects all of our families."
Welch said much of the same.
"They drop off the ballot, or worse, they guess," Welch said. "That's a lot of voters for judges. And we don't want them to guess, which is why I'm so glad you're on this call to learn more about us. … This is a swing seat if you look at who's nominated. Right now, there are four Republican nominees and three Democrat nominees."
Welch took time out to explain the significance of the State Supreme Court and its role in state government.
"We know there's now an expansion of the reading of Title VII to include LGBT protections," she said. "I do employment law, so this is my world. However, if you're an employer that's less than 15 employees you're not covered by Title VII. You're covered by Michigan law at that point. And Michigan law is not expanded. So while there is a lot of efforts around that, which Jay can certainly talk more about, if a lawsuit were to be filed in Michigan around this issue it would be decided by the State Supreme Court because that's a state law.
"The courts could decide … historically [The] Elliott-Larsen [Civil Rights Act] has been interpreted to kind of mirror Title VII in some cases, but that's undecided," Welch continued. "But that's an issue that could come before the court."
All three speakers mentioned the issue they believe is going to be the next big step in LGBTQ rights law.
"One of the biggest threats to LGBT equality is the attempts by faith-based organizations, by individuals who are citing religious beliefs saying they should be exempt from complying with civil rights laws even where they might be receiving a government contract to provide government services," Kaplan said. "It has the potential to take us down a very dangerous slippery slope. Because we're not talking about religious activity. We're talking about providing a governmental service. So, the courts are going to be playing an incredibly important role."
McCormack concurred, citing that religious freedom civil rights law conflict is "the next frontier." Welch agreed.
McCormack and Welch have been campaigning together and McCormack made it clear how much she wanted to see Welch on the court.
"We are really lucky to have Elizabeth Welch willing to stand up and run for that seat," she said. "She's been a longtime ally, advocate for every good idea that there is in the state. And, also, is really smart and energetic and knows how to run a campaign.
"I will not be happy on election night if I win and she doesn't," McCormack went on. "It's that simple. Her help is what I need to keep getting stuff done."