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Michigan Supreme Court adopts gender pronoun rule

Rick Pluta
Michigan Public Radio Network

A divided Michigan Supreme Court has adopted a rule that will require judges and other court personnel to address people appearing before them by the pronouns the individual uses.

The court split sharply on the issue, which came to the forefront in 2021 after an appeals court judge wrote an opinion lambasting a defendant's request to be referred to as “they.”

The rule was approved by a majority vote of the justices.
“Our courts and court staff must conduct business in a way that is cognizant of changes in language and societal norms,” Democrat-nominated Justice Elizabeth Welch wrote in a concurrence statement.

The Supreme Court majority determined that calling people by the pronouns they use – he, him, his, or she, her, hers or they, theirs and them – will make courts in Michigan more welcoming and inclusive.

“Judges are ultimately public servants,” Welch wrote. “We serve the entire public and are required to treat those who come before us with civility and respect. The gender identity of a member of the public is a part of their individual identity, regardless of whether others agree or approve.”

Two justices on the court dissented.

GOP-nominated Justice Brian Zahra wrote the court should have stayed away from the question.

“All told, this is a fluid political debate into which our judicial branch of state government should not wade, let alone dive headfirst and claim to have resolved,” he wrote. He also said judges should not be forced to violate religious convictions.

In her own statement, Democrat-nominated Justice Kyra Harris Bolden wrote that judges who don’t like the rule can opt to refer to people by their names or descriptions that match their role such as “prosecutor,” “defendant” or “plaintiff.”

She wrote the rule will help relieve the fear and anxiety that people can feel when interacting with courts.

“This is not about special treatment; it is about ensuring that anyone who identifies by a particular pronoun receives the dignity of being addressed by that gender when they are before a judge,” she wrote.

The rule takes effect on January 1st.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.
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