After helping bring marriage equality to the nation, Michigan attorney general candidate Dana Nessel hopes to make more history this fall – and get some “poetic justice” as well..
Nessel was the attorney who originally handled DeBoer v. Snyder, in which a Michigan lesbian couple challenged the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, a case that was eventually consolidated with Ohio’s Obergefell v. Hodges and cases from Kentucky and Tennessee and heard before the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in the 2015 marriage equality ruling.
It was Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and his staff who defended the state’s ban – and if Nessel is elected attorney general, not only will she be the first out statewide elected official in Michigan, she’ll take the place of the man who opposed her efforts for marriage equality. “I can think of no better poetic justice,” she says.
She’s the presumptive Democratic nominee for attorney general, having received the party’s endorsement and expected to receive its official nomination at the state convention to be held this weekend. (In Michigan, nominees for certain state offices are chosen by convention rather than primary.) If she’s elected in November, her goal is to undo the damage she says Republicans have done to her state and to build a more progressive, inclusive future for all Michiganders.
“There’s probably a million different reasons” she decided to run for attorney general, Nessel tells The Advocate. One is that the Republicans who have held the office for the past 16 years – Schuette, now running for governor, and his predecessor, Mike Cox – “have really utilized it in a way where they’re persecuting our state residents instead of protecting them,” she says.
For one thing, she says, they and other Republicans have not satisfactorily addressed problems with the state’s supply of drinking water. “They like to talk about being tough on crime, but they fail to appreciate that polluting the environment is actually a crime,” Nessel says.
“The most pressing issue in Michigan right now is access to clean drinking water,” she says. The lead contamination of Flint’s drinking water has been well publicized, but other areas in the state lack safe drinking water as well, even though Michigan is surrounded by 21 percent of the planet’s fresh surface water, she notes.
There are also threats to the state’s water supply from Enbridge Line 5, an oil pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac and could rupture at any time, and PFAs, chemicals used in manufacturing household products that are at high levels in many Michigan sites, Nessel says.
The attorney general could do much about these problems, such as shutting down the pipeline immediately by revoking easements granted for it, and seeking settlements from companies that have caused the PFA pollution in order to fund water filtration systems, she says.
Another key issue is hate crimes. Michigan, like many states, saw a surge in hate crimes after Donald Trump was elected president, but it’s gone particularly high, to fourth in the nation, Nessel says. And right at the top of those targeted are LGBTQ people.
In 2016 she cofounded the Fair Michigan Justice Project, a nonprofit organization that investigates and prosecutes anti-LGBTQ hate crimes in cooperation with local prosecutors’ offices. She’d like to expand on that work as attorney general by establishing a unit in the AG’s office to handle hate crimes.
Schuette, she notes, recently dealt a setback to LGBTQ rights in Michigan, issuing an opinion that the state civil rights law’s ban on sex discrimination does not also ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. “I have a completely different perspective on it,” she says, adding that courts around the nation have found that anti-LGBQ discrimination falls under the definition of sex discrimination. So did the Michigan Civil Rights Commission -- and the person who asked Schuette to weigh in with his contrary opinion, she points out, is Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard, the likely Republican nominee for attorney general.
She would also, she says, cease defending a Michigan law that allows adoption and foster care agencies to discriminate if they have religious objections to certain prospective parents, even if the agencies receive state funds. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed suit over the law, and “I think the ACLU is 100 percent right in their assessment,” she says.
Other LGBTQ rights priorities would be fighting the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine rights to health care and more through various “religious freedom” measures and the transgender military ban, Nessel says.
She takes issue with Republicans on a variety of other matters as wellm such as gun laws. The attorney general isn’t a legislative position, but in that post she could advocate for reforms she supports, such as expanding background checks and limiting the number of guns and amount of ammunition a person can buy. Leonard, on the other hand, favors looser gun regulations, even supporting the repeal of restrictions on the carrying of concealed firearms.
Nessel’s passion regarding these issues, and her passion for the law, developed at an early age. “I read To Kill a Mockingbird in the seventh grade and Atticus Finch was sort of a fictional hero to me, and I thought [law] was the best way to advance justice for the most people,” she says.
A Michigan native, she is a graduate of the University of Michigan and the Wayne State University Law School. She spent 11 years as an assistant prosecutor in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, and then started her own law firm in 2005.
When she began her practice, she saw a dearth of attorneys willing to take LGBTQ rights cases, but she ended up being deeply involved in this area. She recalls seeing a “parade of horribles,” especially in regard to custody disputes. One of her cases, Harmon v. Davis, led to the first Michigan court ruling that a nonbiological parent in a same-sex couple could establish custodial rights to the couple’s children. She also successfully petitioned for the first second-parent adoptions for same-sex couples in Oakland and Wayne counties.
Her most famous case began in 2012, after Michigan couple April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse narrowly avoided a head-on collision with a truck on a snowy road. They wondered what would happen to their children if either or both of them died. They decided to challenge the state law that prevented unmarried couples from jointly adopting children and hired Nessel to sue in federal court. U.S. District Judge Bernard A. Friedman, hearing the case, told the couple and their attorney they really should be challenging Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage. They took his advice, and though there were ups and downs along the way, they eventually made history.
Nessel didn’t get to argue the consolidated case before the Supreme Court – that duty went to Mary Bonauto of GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders – but she was in the courtroom for it. It was a thrilling experience, she recalls. “It was majestic, and I will remember that as well as or better than any experience I’ve ever had,” she says.
The case also had profound personal implications for Nessel. She was handling it pro bono, so she had to do a good deal of fundraising to cover costs. In the process, she met Alanna Maguire, who was on the board of a local Democratic club. “While we were working together, we fell in love,” Nessel says.
She proposed to Maguire outside the Supreme Court right after the arguments in Obergefell in April 2015. Nessel recalls feeling a little shaky after the arguments, as Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s swing vote, was hard to read. But she was confident enough to propose, and after the court’s landmark ruling that summer, written by Kennedy, she and Maguire were married – by Judge Friedman, who had helped put it all in motion. The women have twin sons, Alex and Zach.
Now Nessel sees their family and others like it threatened by the Trump administration, not least by the possible confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as Kennedy’s successor on the Supreme Court. All the pro-LGBTQ rulings of recent decades would be threatened, she says. “I could see it all going away in one fell swoop.”
The way to combat the Trump agenda, she says, is with Democratic victories in races for Congress and state offices this November. If Michigan joins in the hoped-for blue wave, it will also be a female wave – all the of the expected nominees for statewide office are women.
Nessel promises it will be an LGBTQ-inclusive wave as well, and not just because of her identity. “If I am elected, I think I have a responsibility to the LGBTQ community in this state to be an official that makes this community proud,” she says.