A Michigan district court today struck down a state law barring local governments from offering health care and other fringe benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of their employees, holding that the ban violates the Equal Protection Clause because it reflects unconstitutional animus against same-sex couples. The decision by Judge David M. Lawson (a Clinton appointee) in Bassett v. Snyder overturns a Michigan law signed by Governor Rick Snyder in 2011. Taken together with DeBoer v. Snyderthe Sixth Circuit decision last week that devoted an entire section to the animus claim against state anti-SSM laws, it further raises the profile of animus analysis as the issue of gay marriage is poised to arrive at the Supreme Court.

Judge Lawson’s opinion differs from the Sixth Circuit’s consideration of animus on more than just the outcome. The Sixth Circuit asked only “whether anything but prejudice to the affected class could explain the law” and declined to search for what it characterized as subjective maliciousness in the hearts of millions of voters. Bassett reflects a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of how animus analysis actually works in the Supreme Court’s quadrilogy of animus cases (Moreno, Cleburne, Romer, and Windsor) (as I’ve explained it in the Supreme Court Recview here and in an extended VC post here) as well as in the Sixth Circuit’s own precedents.

To begin with, the search for impermissible animus does not depend on examining the subjective motives of legislators or voters. Instead, it rests on consideration of a variety of objective factors that do not require courts to read minds or discern the contents of hearts. As the district court recognized: