Before she was attorney general, Dana Nessel was the lead attorney on a case challenging Michigan’s ban on same-sex adoption.
She represented Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer in a suit against the state, DeBoer v. Snyder, which blossomed into a challenge of the “underlying issue” of Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage. On March 21, 2014, U.S. District Judge Bernard Judge Friedman lifted that ban, allowing for 323 same-sex couples to wed the next day.
And five years later, Nessel, now Michigan’s attorney general, got to announce that the state had settled a separate lawsuit on same-sex adoption, Dumont v. Lyon.
“What was so great about that case was that is was the right resolution legally and it’s the right disposition in that case ethically, morally in my opinion, as well,” she told the Advance in an exclusive interview this afternoon. “But legally, it was airtight; what we did was totally appropriate. And frankly, I just don’t know how this office would have properly defended that case. I mean, there was no way to win that case.
“So what could have happened is, we could have spent millions and millions of dollars defending it and absolutely would have lost it. No question. In my mind, there’s no way that that could have been won,” Nessel continued. “So it was nice to be able to do the right thing, to do the economic thing and to come to the right legal disposition.”
Back on March 21, 2014, Nessel was in a different role.
She was sitting at the kitchen table at DeBoer’s and Rowse’s house, waiting for Friedman’s decision, which came down after 5 p.m. That ended up giving couples a brief window to marry at the four county clerks’ offices that opened the next day.
“So I thought that night would be one nonstop party, but instead it was finding out what clerks were opening their offices,” Nessel recalled. “And frankly, I was on the phone all night trying to get every single couple who I knew would have wanted to been married to get them, tell them to go to the courthouse the next day.”
Nessel believed that couples who got married would have valid unions, based on the precedent in California.
“It would be very, very unlikely that those marriages would ever be able to be invalidated,” she said. “So for these long-suffering couples, this might be their only chance ever to get married because there was no assurance that we were going to win our case — this might be the only day of their lives that they can enter into a legal marriage with their loved one.”
Nessel talked with Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett, who wanted to open on Saturday but couldn’t find enough staff. The next morning, Nessel, her now-wife Alanna Maguire and their kids headed down to Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown’s office.
“I called up every judge I knew because I knew that Lisa Brown [would] only be able to marry so many people herself,” Nessel said. “So we needed people who were invested with the authority to marry.
“… We got there and there’s this massive line out the door and I have to say to this day, I’m just so impressed with Lisa Brown’s operation … They were ready to go and it was like an assembly line of people getting their licenses and then getting sworn in, getting married.”
Nessel described the scene as “pandemonium, but it was just utter happiness.”
“To see so many people I knew personally to be able to marry finally … I had no sleep the night before at all, but I just couldn’t stop smiling because [of] just the utter joy and happiness from so many people,” she said.
The U.S. Appeals Court issued a stay, as expected, later in the day on March 22, 2014, which halted the marriages. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ended up hearing a challenge to same-sex marriage bans in Michigan and three other states.
Nessel ended up popping the question to Maguire after oral arguments were over at the Supreme Court in April 2015. The court issued its landmark opinion legalizing same-sex marriage on June 26.
By July, the couple made it official. Friedman performed the ceremony in the same courtroom where Nessel successfully argued the DeBoer case.
The Advance asked Nessel if she believed when she took the case initially if it would have so much significance in her life and for so many others.
“Not for my life, personally. I didn’t think of it that way,” Nessel said. “I had a sense of righteous indignation because it was me, as well, even though I wasn’t doing it to further benefit for myself personally.
“… I knew that this was going to have really incredible significance. And I think it was hard for me to talk people into that, but I had just felt that my bones all along. … I said all along, I really truly, believed that that case would end up in the United States Supreme Court. And everyone thought I was crazy, but it did.”
Nessel took the case after DeBoer called her to draw up some guardianship paperwork.
“When I heard their story, I right away thought, ‘This is the couple’ — they’re the ones to challenge the law because their story was so compelling,” she said. “And I just knew there was something special about their family and I think something special about the case.”