On September 18, 2017, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission was poised to make history. In a packed room, the commission was about to determine if the state’s civil-rights act prohibited discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. Just two years prior, the Supreme Court decided, in Obergefell v. Hodges, that same-sex couples had the constitutional right to marry. And if same-sex couples could marry in Michigan, why couldn’t they, say, own an apartment or hold a job without fear of discrimination? “We felt very confident,” said Steph White, executive director of Equality Michigan. “The community was signed on. And the commission was open to the idea that they could do something positive for the LGBTQ community.”
Then, just as the three hours of public comment were concluding, Ron Robinson, a representative of the state’s Republican attorney general, Bill Schuette, stood up. He calmly informed the commission that it had no authority to issue an interpretation of the civil-rights act, and if it tried, the commissioners could be held personally liable for any resulting lawsuits.
“The whole room was like, ‘What!?’” White told me.
Schuette’s statement was unexpected and without any clear legal basis. In order to function properly, agencies like the Civil Rights Commission have to resolve ambiguities in the laws that they enforce. What’s more, the commission had issued interpretations and position statements in the past.
Schuette’s last-minute announcement confused the commission and infuriated members of the public. “Why did we have this hours-long conversation only for you to tell us we can’t do this?” White remembered wondering.
Eventually the commissioners called the attorney general’s bluff, and in May 2018, they reconvened and granted LGBTQ people their protections. Schuette, who did not respond to requests for comment, must have known his claim about the commission’s mandate was not legally binding. To White, it’s an example of Schuette’s political opportunism. Schuette, his critics claim, has repeatedly used his position as attorney general to curry favor with the state’s far right, often at the expense of civil rights. Far from hurting his career, Schuette’s pandering has just won him the GOP’s primary for governor by a wide margin. “Michigan will start winning again,” Schuette said in his acceptance speech.
As attorney general, Schuette likes to say—with gee-whiz Midwestern humility—that he’s not out to play politics: “I don’t sit around and pass judgment on people. I don’t say, ‘Gee is that person gay or straight or bi? Or what does that person’s sex life look like?’ I think that’d be really weird. I don’t pass judgment like that. What I do is my job.”