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Topics In the News
Judge Levy and Judge Friedman
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 03/24/14
Last updated on: 03/24/14
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When I reported that on March 12, 2014 Judith Levy was confirmed to a seat on on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, I noted not only that she would become the first openly gay federal judge in Michigan but that from 1996 to 1999, she served as a law clerk to Judge Bernard A. Friedman, who recently invalidated Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage in the case of DeBoer v. Snyder. An interesting article in the Detroit Free Press offers more information about Judge Levy and her relationship with Judge Friedman.

In his article, Brian Dickerson offers a full profile of Judge Levy, including the fact that she and her long-time partner Janet Johnson were recently married in a civil ceremony in Washington, D.C. The couple are parents to three children.

When Levy, then a second-year law student at the University of Michigan, first met Friedman in 1995, he had already tapped her to become his clerk upon her graduation. She had been invited to lunch with her future boss, and she called him to let him know that she was pregnant. During the application process, she had strongly hinted that she was a lesbian, but she feared that he might be shocked or at least bewildered if she showed up for lunch without preparing her boss for her appearance.

Despite whatever trepidations Levy may have had about her boss' reaction to her pregnancy, they proved baseless. As Dickerson writes, "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."

During her time working for Friedman, she not only gave birth to her first child but also to twins.

Levy was the first openly gay person Judge Friedman and his staff had worked with. The fact that she and her partner were raising an infant made her seem that much more exotic. Levy freely shared details of how she and Johnson were planning to build their family through the use of artificial reproductive technology. She and Johnson, who is African American, hoped to conceive biracial children who bore physical resemblances to both women.

Their twins were born during the middle of Levy's clerkship and the pregnancy became a "landmark event" in Judge Friedman's chambers.

Dickerson quotes Michael Steinberg, a lawyer who knows Friedman and Levy well, as saying that 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."

There is no question that Judge Friedman's ruling was based solidly on the law and the evidence. It is not a result of his personal friendships. Still, it is an axiom that as straight people come to know gay people personally, they resist the popular misconceptions and stereotypes. They are certainly less susceptible to the caricatures of gay people that are frequently offered by opponents of equal rights.

In reading Dickerson's article, I was reminded of an observation Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times made some time ago about how "webs of personal association and experience have led the [Supreme Court] justices to see old problems in new ways." In 1986, when Justice Lewis Powell cast a vote to uphold sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick, a vote he later regretted, he subsequently remarked that he had never known a gay person. Ironically, he made that statement to a clerk who was himself a closeted gay man.

By the time the Supreme Court reversed Bowers v. Hardwick in the 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, the world had changed. As Greenhouse observed, the Court itself had become "a gay-friendly workplace where employees feel sufficiently comfortable in their open identity to bring their partners to court functions."

As Dale Carpenter reports in Flagrant Conduct, his indispensable history of Lawrence v. Texas, gay-rights advocates received a boost of confidence when, on the day of oral argument at the Supreme Court, someone in the audience whispered to the lead attorney that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor--one of two swing voters on the Court--had recently sent a baby gift to a former clerk and her same-sex partner.

In other words, coming out is important not only for individual happiness but also in changing the hearts and minds of others.

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