Michigan judges required to use preferred pronouns in court under new rule
- Michigan judges will soon be required to adhere to personal pronouns provided by parties in their courtrooms, including they/them pronouns
- Michigan appears to be the first state to take this step in courtrooms
- The new rule takes effect Jan. 1, 2024
Starting next year, Michigan judges will be required to honor personal pronouns provided by parties in their courtrooms.
Under a new rule announced by the Michigan Supreme Court Wednesday following intense debate on the subject this summer, parties in a case will soon be able to submit court filings listing their personal pronouns, including they/them pronouns, and can also include Ms., Mr., or Mx. as a preferred form of address.
Judges and court staff throughout the state will be required to either use those pronouns, or to address people in their courtrooms by their names "or other respectful means."
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The decision, backed by a majority of the seven judges on the state’s highest court, makes Michigan the first state to explicitly acknowledge personal pronouns in courtrooms, Justice Kyra Harris Bolden said in a statement supporting the change.
“History is made by being the first,” Bolden wrote. “Adopting this amendment makes Michigan courts more welcoming and inclusive for all.”
Bolden, who was appointed to the court in November 2022 by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, noted that the rule change builds on existing rules that already require judges to address parties in respectful ways. It “merely reinforces what is already required of judges under the judicial canons,” she wrote.
Supporters of the change say it will make Michigan courtrooms more accessible to LGBTQ+ people, particularly to transgender and nonbinary people who must go before a local court to legally change their names.
During a June hearing, attorneys who frequently work with LGBTQ+ people told justices their clients have had negative experiences in Michigan courtrooms where they have been misgendered or referred to by names or pronouns they no longer use. Attorney Heidi Naasko told the court such instances can cause “embarrassment, humiliation and panic” during court proceedings.
In a concurring statement supporting the rule change, Justice Elizabeth Welch said the new rule reflects “changes in language and societal norms” and encourages courts to conduct business in a way “that does not give the appearance of misgendering individuals, intentionally or otherwise.”
“A primary goal of this change is to ensure that the judiciary operates in a manner that is objectively respectful of the individual identity and personal pronouns of the members of the public that we serve, regardless of the subjective viewpoints of individuals working within the court system,” Welch wrote.
Those who opposed the rule change argued that using they/them pronouns could cause confusion in court records, including for court reporters and judges writing opinions, and could infringe on constitutional rights to free speech or religious expression.
The two justices who dissented, Justices Brian Zahra and David Viviano, wrote in dissenting statements that the rule change was unnecessary.
The directive “will undoubtedly inflame conflict” and could put judges and other court officials at odds with their personal beliefs, Zahra wrote.
“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,” Zahra wrote. “Such hubris has no place within the operation of a judicial branch of state government.”
The new rule takes effect Jan. 1, 2024. Judges who are found to have intentionally violated courts rules can face sanctions by the court including reprimands, suspensions or, in extreme cases, removal from the bench.
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