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John Conyers Asks Attorney General To Review Michigan Emergency Manager Law

First Posted: 12/02/2011 12:04 pm Updated: 12/02/2011 1:51 pm

DETROIT -- As Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder plans a preliminary state review of Detroit's finances, a legal challenge to his authority to do such an action may be on the way. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who represents Detroit, has sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking the Justice Department for an immediate review of Michigan's emergency manager law.

A 30-day preliminary financial review is the first step toward a state appointment of an emergency manager for Detroit -- an outcome Snyder has said he would like to avoid and members of Detroits' City Council and Mayor Dave Bing have vehemently opposed. At a last-minute press conference called Thursday, Bing and City Council members, along with labor, religious and business leaders, announced their opposition to a preliminary review.

Conyers's letter to Holder outlines the ways in which he says Michigan's emergency manager law is unconstitutional. "I believe the Justice Department has ample authority to review and if necessary challenge this unilateral exercise of power by the State towards the City of Detroit and other jurisdictions," he wrote Thursday.

A version of the emergency manager law has been on the books in Michigan since 1988, but Public Act 4, passed by the majority Republican legislature and signed by Snyder in March, grants further-reaching powers to the governor and appointees. Under the law, Michigan's governor can appoint an emergency manager for any community or school district the state considers to be in a "financial emergency." The conditions of financial emergency are left loosely defined.

Emergency managers have broad powers, including the ability to unilaterally dismiss elected officials, dissolve municipal governments, break collective bargaining agreements and sell public assets.

Opponents Public Act 4 have long said that it is unconstitutional. Conyers first spoke against the law when it passed the Michigan House in March.

"I do not often comment on the activities of the Michigan Legislature, but House Bill 4214 stands out as an unconstitutional swipe at minority communities and hardworking public workers," he wrote in a March 27 Free Press op-ed. "Done under the guise of Michigan's temporary financial distress, this bill is an opportunistic power grab by Republican state legislators and now the governor."

In his Thursday letter, Conyers invoked the contract clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits states from "impairing the obligation of contracts."

He also said the appointment of emergency managers "would appear to violate the Voting Rights Act."

"While the law itself may be facially neutral, it would seem that it is being applied in a discriminatory fashion, as the impacted jurisdictions have very high proportions of African Americans and other minorities," Conyers wrote.

Emergency managers are currently in place in four Michigan municipalities: Benton Harbor, Pontiac, Ecorse and now Flint, as well as the Detroit Public Schools district. They've been appointed previously in Hamtramck and Highland Park, among other municipalities.

"By initiating the process that would add the City of Detroit to the list of EM jurisdictions, another largely African American jurisdiction, the State would be perpetuating the discrimination on an even more egregious scale," Conyers wrote.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice confirmed to HuffPost that the department had received the letter and was reviewing it, but declined to comment further.

In September, a U.S. District Court judge dismissed a challenge to the law from Detroit's pension boards, finding the law had not yet affected the plaintiffs.

Other groups have taken a different approach to challenging Public Act 4. A coalition called Stand Up For Democracy has been gathering signatures in a petition drive to freeze Public Act 4 and put it up for a referendum on the 2012 ballot. The group has set a goal of 250,000 signatures, though only 161,304 valid signatures are needed to freeze the law.

The Michigan local of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has been instrumental in that effort and is currently validating the collected signatures. A source familiar with the petition drive told HuffPost organizers had collected "in excess of 155,000 signatures," though Brad Wilson, AFSCME Michigan's campaign manager, declined to comment further. Michigan Forward, Stand Up for Democracy and members of the labor, civic and religious communities will hold a press conference Friday afternoon and are expected to announce the number of signatures gathered so far.

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