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Emergency Manager Lawsuit Faces Fast-Track Scrutiny From Michigan Supreme Court

Posted: 12/14/2011 10:51 am

The Michigan Supreme Court will hear briefs Wednesday for a case challenging the constitutionality of Public Act 4, the state's emergency manager law.

Gov. Rick Snyder attempted to fast-track the law straight to the state's highest court in August by invoking a rarely used executive maneuver, but the court postponed the matter in order to give both sides more time to gather information. The court will not rule on the law Wednesday, but decide whether to immediately hear the case.

Public Act 4 allows the governor to send specially-appointed emergency managers to financially struggling cities or school districts, granting them unilateral authority to void previously negotiated agreements and to dismiss elected officials. Emergency Managers currently run the cities of Flint, Benton Harbor, Ecorse and Pontiac and the Detroit Public School District. Detroit is currently under a preliminary financial review for a manager.

In June, 28 citizens from around the state filed suit in Ingham County court against Public Act 4 with the representation of the Sugar Law Center and the National Lawyers Guild. Their lawsuit claims the law violates the state constitution's "home rule" provisions and the Headlee Amendment, which bans the state from enacting unfunded mandates.

The Sugar Law Center's John Philo told the Michigan Messenger that Snyder's efforts to bypass the lower courts by expediting the case to the state Supreme Court fly in the face of legal precedent. "Initial fact-finding and critical evidence occurs at the circuit court level," said Philo. "This is why we have an established judicial system, and for the governor to want to skip that process is troubling."

The Michigan Supreme Court is dominated 4-3 by justices nominated by the Michigan Republican Party.

Detroiter Edith Lee Payne is one of the plaintiffs in the case and a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. She spoke to HuffPost recently about the case, noting the application of Public Act 4 seems to concentrate mostly on large, majority-Black urban centers.

"What this legislation does is very personal to me, not just because I marched with Dr. King ... but because of everything Dr. King sacrificed, along with thousands of other people who lost their lives for the right to vote, for civil rights and everything that this emergency manager destroys," Payne said. "It's a travesty to the Constitution of the United States and the Michigan state constitution."

Representatives from Snyder's office did not return calls requesting comment. In an August statement to the court the governor argued that "without a bypass, this lawsuit may take years to reach finality."

U.S. Rep John Conyers, a Democrat who represents Michigan, has also raised a legal challenge to Public Act 4. In early December he sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder requesting the Justice Department review the law for violations of the contract clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits states from "impairing the obligation of contracts," and the Voting Rights Act.

Conyers told the Detroit News that Holder currently has a legal team studying the request.

A third legal effort to freeze and possibly repeal the law is also well underway. A coalition of groups called Stand Up for Democracy says it has gathered nearly all of the 161,000 signatures needed to freeze Public Act 4 pending a referendum on the 2012 ballot.

Greg Bowens, spokesman for Stand Up for Democracy, told HuffPost the group is "on track to turn in more than the number of signatures to repeal the law."

"It's the easiest petition drive I've ever been involved in," he said, adding that 70 percent of people polled across the state want to repeal the law.

But state officials are also looking for a remedy in the event the petition drive is successful. Treasurer Andy Dillon is currently working with lawmakers to draft legislation to avoid a suspension of Public Act 4.

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