Metro Weekly

Michigan Supreme Court Rules Judges Must Respect Pronouns

The new rule requires judges to use either a person's preferred pronouns or gender-neutral terms when addressing parties.

Michigan Supreme Court – Photo: Steve & Christine / Wikimedia

Last week, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered all judges to address people in court by the pronouns they use or by “other respectful means.”

According to the amendment, which was approved 5-2 by the state’s highest court, parties and attorneys may use “Ms., Mr., or Mx. as a preferred form of address,” as well as gender-affirming pronouns.

Alternatively, they may refer to a party by their title or role in the case, along with the person’s last name.

“Courts must use the individual’s name, the designated salutation or personal pronouns, or other respectful means that are not inconsistent with the individual’s designated salutation or personal pronouns when addressing, referring to, or identifying the party or attorney, either orally or in writing,” the amendment reads.

The new pronouns rule is slated to take effect on January 1, 2024.

Judges found to have intentionally violated court rules may face sanctions by the court, including reprimands, suspension, or — in extreme cases — removal from the bench, according to the nonprofit news source Bridge Michigan.

The decision makes Michigan the first state to explicitly acknowledge personal pronouns in courtrooms, reports NBC News.

Justice Kyra Harris Bolden touted the amendment as a “step in the right direction.”

“Adopting this amendment makes Michigan courts more welcoming and inclusive for all,” she wrote in her concurrence with the rule. “This amendment affords parties and attorneys basic respect and merely reinforces what is already required of judges under the judicial canons. Judges must also accept limits on their freedoms as part of their privilege to serve on the bench, for the betterment of the courts, and to uphold other policies.”

Supporters of the amendment argue that it helps make courtrooms more accessible to LGBTQ people, especially transgender and nonbinary individuals whose personal pronouns may not match their assigned sex at birth, and who must obtain a court order to change their names legally.

“Judges are ultimately public servants,” Justice Elizabeth 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.”

Opponents of the amendment had argued that people with sincere religious beliefs opposing homosexuality or transgender identity were going to be “forced” to use pronouns that would violate those beliefs. 

Justices Brian Zahra and David Viviano both opposed the rule, with Zahra criticizing the court for wading into the issue of pronouns altogether.

“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. “Such hubris has no place within the operation of a judicial branch of state government.”

Zahra added that the rule is unnecessary because the code of judicial conduct, by which all judges are required to abide, directs judges to “treat every person fairly, with courtesy and respect.”

He also predicted that judges with their own personal anti-LGBTQ religious beliefs would likely sue over the new rule, predicting that ultimately the debate over requiring pronouns or gender-neutral terms would come before,  and ultimately be resolved by, the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This proposed rule change is much worse than a solution in search of a problem; it is a directive that will undoubtedly inflame conflict and exacerbate the social division of the people of Michigan,” he wrote.

But Welch countered that objection, noting that the rule allows judges to exercise their own discretion for how to address parties respectfully. If a judge objects to a person’s pronouns, they may refer to that individual using gender-neutral terminology.

“Certainly, asking our judges to be respectful to litigants using other general neutral means (such as addressing a party as ‘Attorney Smith’ or ‘Plaintiff Smith’) does not force anyone to violate their beliefs,” Welch wrote in her concurrence. 

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