Michigan and the Supreme Court rulings

Jun 27, 2013

 If you are a liberal, you were probably dismayed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act Tuesday, and thrilled by the justices’ ruling on same-sex marriage Wednesday.

If you are a conservative, you probably feel exactly the opposite.  Yet things are seldom as black and white as they seem, and like everyone else, Michiganders are apt to see just how complex the effects of these rulings really are, as the consequences of these decisions play out in coming months and years.

Let’s talk about same-sex marriage first.  Though Michigan is a relatively big northern industrial state that votes Democratic for president, we are not really very gay-friendly at all, certainly not in terms of marriage or financial equality.

Officially, the Supreme Court left decisions about marriage up to the states. Michigan voters amended the state constitution nine years ago to define marriage as being between a man and a woman.

That would seem to settle it. But U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman might soon issue a ruling finding Michigan’s law unconstitutional. In March, he postponed a ruling in a gay adoption case until the nation’s highest court ruled on this issue.

Whether or not he acts, Equality Michigan is gearing up for a massive effort to again change the constitution. They want a statewide referendum in 2016, when turnout is expected to be high.

The momentum is certainly with same-sex marriage, and no one can deny there has been an amazing shift in public sentiment. However, it’s also true that these days, marriage means happily ever after less than half the time.

Comedians have joked that the biggest beneficiaries of same-sex marriages may be divorce lawyers, and they may be right.

Turning to the Voting Rights Act, which the justices essentially suspended, again by a five to four vote. Liberals expected this decision, but were bitterly unhappy about it.

The ACLU yesterday noted that one Texas county wants to use a private country club as a polling place. Yet whether or not you agree with the high court’s decision, some of the reaction is clearly from people who haven’t read it.

They might be surprised to know that Chief Justice John Roberts, the man they see as the arch villain here, wrote that “voting discrimination still exists; nobody doubts that.“ He says in fact that the intent of the law is still valid. But he found the act unconstitutional because it is based on data and assumptions half a century old.

The world is indeed a different place than it was. With the exception of Clarence Thomas, the justices in the majority invited Congress to write and pass a new Voting Rights Act. Earlier in the week I felt this might be next to impossible, given the strident ideological nature of many Republicans, who control the House.

But I may have spoken too soon. Majority Leader Eric Cantor thinks rewriting the voting rights act is exactly what Congress should do. Those who agree should lobby their representatives to put this on the agenda.

Years ago, the late Larry O’Brien wrote a book about his life in politics called “No Final Victories.” Those of us who have been around a while know there are also seldom final defeats.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's Political Analyst.  Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.