Proper pronoun use has now come before high court


By Marie E. Matyjaszek

The Michigan Supreme Court voted in September to amend Michigan Court Rule (MCR) 1.109 to include language about respecting a litigant’s or attorney’s preferred pronoun when “addressing, referring to, or identifying the party or attorney, either orally or in writing.” It is the first state to do so, and the amendment takes effect January 1, 2024.

The issue came into public view in 2021 after an appeals court judge wrote an opinion criticizing a defendant’s request to be referred to as “they.”

Under the new rule, case captions can also include Ms., Mr., or Mx., and a personal gender pronoun. The court must use either the “individual’s name, the designated salutation or personal pronouns, or other respectful means that are not inconsistent” with the person’s designated salutation or pronouns. 

The vote to amend the rule was 5 to 2 in favor with Justices Brian Zahra and David Viviano opposing the change. Michigan Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Welch noted that as society evolves, so does vocabulary, and the judiciary must recognize and respect the desired identity and pronouns of the society served. She added that the rule “does not force anyone to violate their beliefs.”

“Courts must use the individual’s name, the designated salutation or personal pronouns, or other respectful means that is not inconsistent with the individual’s salutation or personal pronouns,” the Supreme Court said.

Opponents of the change believe that courts are wading into a significant political issue that has no place in a courtroom. 

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

Defenders of the amendment note that if the court has a religious or other objection to using a preferred pronoun, the party can still be addressed by their role and last name (Attorney Jones, Defendant Jones).

Justice Kyra Harris Bolden said that the rule will help relieve the fear and anxiety that people can feels when interacting with courts.

“This is not about special treatment; it is about ensuring that anyone who identifies by a particular pronoun receives the dignity of being addressed by that gender when they are before a judge,” Bolden wrote.

Like everyone else, judges have personal beliefs and thoughts on gender identity and pronoun use. In an environment that many litigants feel is ripe with bias and inequity, recognizing how a person identifies helps protect against gender prejudice. 

The author is an Attorney Referee at the Washtenaw County Friend of the Court, the views expressed here are her own. Email her at  

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