Behind The Ruling: A Federal Judge, A Lesbian Law Clerk And A Personal Connection

March 23, 2014, 9:40 AM

The 70-year-old Detroit federal judge who says Michigan can't ban same-sex marriage gained insights the way thousands of Americans do: By knowing a gay family.

Brian Dickerson fills in the backstory in a front-page Free Press column:

Almost 19 years ago — long before most Michiganders could imagine a day when gay and lesbian couples would enjoy the right to marry and raise children together — U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman discovered that a social revolution was breaking out in his own chambers.

Judge Bernard Friedman became close to former law clerk Judith Levy, her lesbian partner and their three children. Levy is Michigan's newest federal judge. (Photo by Robert Chase)

The discovery involved Judith Levy, a second-year University of Michigan Law School student picked to serve as Friedman's law clerk after graduation. Before showing up at the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit for a 1995 lunch with her future boss, Levy called with personal news to avoid surprising him: She was pregnant.

A Republican who’d been appointed to the federal trial bench by Ronald Reagan in 1988, Friedman was aware that Levy, whom he’d selected from a field of more than 250 applicants, was a lesbian. The writing samples she’d submitted with her application included a memo she’d written for a nationally recognized gay rights group, a choice calculated to telegraph her own orientation.

It had never occurred to him that his single, lesbian clerk might be planning a family. But Friedman, who had served as a district court judge in Southfield before joining the U.S. District Court, was proud of his reputation as a boss who put his family first and encouraged his staff to do the same. And though he’d never met the partner Levy called J.J., he was determined to treat the couple and the child they had decided to raise together the same way he treated his other employees’ families.

By the time Levy strode into his chambers in maternity clothes that August day, her new employer was all smiles. “Congratulations!” he said heartily. . . .

A year into her clerkship, Levy disclosed that she was pregnant again, this time with twins. . . .

Michael Steinberg, a lawyer who knows Friedman and Levy well, says the judge took a special interest in Levy’s growing family. “He became more than a casual friend to them,” Steinberg says. “It’s almost like he’s their grandfather.”

Late last month, when on the morning Friedman heard opening statements in the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Michigan’s prohibition of same-sex marriages, Micah and Kayla — the twins Levy bore while she was clerking for him — watched raptly from the courtroom gallery. Shortly after noon, the 15-year-olds slipped into Friedman’s chambers for a quiet lunch with the judge and his staff.

Last Tuesday, Dickerson writes, Levy was sworn in as the first openly gay federal judge to serve in circuit that includes Michigan. President Obama nominated the former assistant U.S. attorney last July to fill a vacancy on the U.S. District Court in Detroit.

“I came out as a lesbian in 1977 — before some of you were born — and when I opened that closet door, other doors closed,” Levy told the small group of friends and colleagues at an informal ceremony in Chief Judge Gerald Rosen’s courtroom.

“But our country is changing,” she added, “and the fact that this door has opened for me means that it is open for many others.”

Saturday morning, Michigan’s newest federal judge was on hand at the Washtenaw County Clerk’s Office to certify the marriages of same-sex couples who sought to take early advantage of Friedman’s ruling.

Friedman's decision Friday to toss out Michigan’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage wasn't made because of "his professional affiliation or friendship with Levy," Dickerson stresses.

Yet judges . . . are products of their personal experience. And even if he wanted to, Friedman can’t un-ring the bell that began ringing the day a very pregnant Judy Levy walked into his chambers, and resonates still when he sees the children she and her partner have raised together.

The columnist also restates one of his own 2004 observations "on the eve of Michigan's vote to ban gay marriage:" 

The more we encounter one another in the mundane soup of humanity, the harder it will be for straight Americans to sustain the delusion of alien menace all bigotry requires to sustain itself.

-- Alan Stamm

Read more:  Detroit Free Press

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