Twenty-two years ago, Amanda and Kay Shelton faced discrimination when they were shopping for a venue for their commitment ceremony. Then they traveled over 700 miles to see the one retired judge in South Carolina who would do a second parent adoption to ensure both of them would have full legal parenting rights to their two children. That was nine years ago.
Amanda said she didn’t think the day would come when her relationship with her wife would be legal. Nor did she believe that she would see in her lifetime that her kids would have two legal parents in the state of Michigan and have equal standing with other families.
“All of those things have come to fruition,” Shelton said, “and I think it's very important for us to look back and see whose shoulders we stand on and how far our community has come on civil rights issues for the LGBTQ+ community.”
An attorney with 18 years of litigating experience, Shelton said her current law practice of 11 years, Shelton and Deon Law Group, has been a success in part because “we were able to do a lot that we were really passionate about, and a lot of that came from helping families in the LGBTQ+ community who are breaking up, and the laws weren't out there to support them.”
As a candidate for an open seat on the Oakland County Circuit Court in the civil-criminal division, Shelton believes her broad perspective and experience uniquely qualify her for the role.
“LGBTQ+ people need to be every place decisions are being made,” Shelton said. “We have 1.3 million people in our county, and there is not a single openly lesbian judge [here]. And we only have three statewide. That's important because our lived experience matters, and we have a lot to bring to the practice of law: our view of the world and our place in it.”
That’s not to say Shelton is only well-versed in legal issues that pertain to the LGBTQ+ community. She’s litigated everything from complex commercial disputes involving international companies to probate matters, and from landlord-tenant disputes to family law, including adoption, divorce and custody.
“There's not that many cases that I have not touched or handled in some way,” Shelton said. “So I have a very broad perspective to bring to the bench, and a lot of years of experience. To be frank, I have the credentials.”
Shortly after graduating Wayne State University Law School, Shelton helped found the Stonewall Bar Association, an informal bar association for LGBTQ+ attorneys. Today, she’s a frequent speaker on LGBTQ+ issues including training judges and their staff on access to justice issues for the LGBTQ+ community. Among other distinctions, Shelton was named among the Top Women Attorneys in Michigan, 2021. As a candidate for judge, Shelton is proud to have the endorsement of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel.
If elected, Shelton will be the first openly lesbian judge on the Oakland County Circuit Court, and the second openly LGBTQ+ judge on that court after Jake Cunningham, elected in 2018. For nine years, Shelton served on the Ruth Ellis Center board of directors and continues to be involved with the organization.
Pride Source asked Shelton about the status of a currently pending case that the Michigan Supreme Court was recently requested to take up. Pueblo v. Haas has the potential to affect parenting rights for nonbiological children of LGBTQ+ couples in Michigan. As a prospective Circuit Court judge and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, it holds particular relevance for Shelton.
“The reason that Pueblo v. Haas is incredibly important to our community is because of the inability for [all] our families to be legally recognized,” Shelton said, “and by that I mean the following: We have a legal doctrine called the equitable parent doctrine — a case law-made doctrine — which, in various certain circumstances, a nonbiological parent can be considered the legal parent of a child.”
Michigan is the only state in the U.S. with a law on the books, its equitable parent doctrine, that applies solely to heterosexual married parents. This can adversely affect an LGBTQ+ couple, for example, in the case of a married lesbian couple in which the parenting rights of the nonbiological parent would be at risk in the event of divorce if they became parents before they could legally marry.
Because Democrats hold a majority on the Michigan Supreme Court for the first time in recent years, many are hopeful that the Court will hear the case and ultimately, with a favorable ruling, Michigan will join the rest of the country in its definition of “equitable parent.” A favorable outcome would mean the state’s equitable parent doctrine would apply to all couples, not just heterosexual ones.
“LGBTQ+ families have to go through all of these hoops — we still do,” Shelton said. “And that's what's so frustrating. People think, ‘Well, gosh, we have marriage equality. Everything is good for the LGBTQ+ community.’ No, not true."
It’s critical that voters are educated about judicial candidates, Shelton said, for a couple reasons. First, circuit court roles can lead to other judicial positions and it's important that progressive people who are inclusive are in places where inclusive justice matters.
Further, Shelton said, “It’s important for judges to have a broad perspective of the world because courts are supposed to be community spaces, but the court doors are not always open to the entire community.”A kick-off event for Shelton’s campaign will be held from 5:30-7:30 p.m. April 13, with special guest Attorney General Dana Nessel, at Zeoli’s Modern Italian, at 110 E. 14 Mile Road in Clawson. Visit shelton2022.com to learn more.