Michigan Republicans — November 6, 2013 at 8:09 am

ACTION: Don’t let the Michigan GOP rig the state Court of Claims


Call your Representative today. Senate Bill 652 has already passed the Senate and could get a House vote on Wednesday.

Michiganders know what happens when Michigan’s Republican legislators ram a bill through at lightening speed. It means citizens and the democratic process get railroaded by a bill that wouldn’t withstand the scrutiny of a thoughtful, measured debate.

That’s exactly what could happen if SB 652 passes the House, and at the rate this bill is flying through it could happen before we know it. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what the Michigan GOP wants.

Senate Bill 652 would restructure the Michigan Court of Claims in a way that allows a political party in power to hand-pick the judges who hear cases against the state of Michigan. By stacking the courts in their favor, Republicans who dominate all three branches of the government would be able to quickly pass controversial laws, obtain a governor’s signature and put them into effect without constitutional concerns receiving a hearing before a judge or jury.

SB 652 proposes shifting major litigation against the state government out of the Ingham County Circuit Court to the Court of Appeals, where four Court of Appeals judges in at least two different districts would handle Court of Claims cases. The judges would be appointed by the Michigan Supreme Court, which right now is controlled by a Republican majority. Those judges could choose to dismiss a case, not even letting it be heard in court.

Supporters of the bill say it isn’t fair that judges in Ingham County, who were elected only by a small percentage of voters, get to decide statewide cases. They claim it has nothing to do with the Court of Claims having a left-leaning reputation. Opponents fear the bill would “shift power from judges elected by the people to judges appointed by partisan politicians,” as Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer told MLive.

There are plenty of good reasons for concern, like those expressed by Karla Swift, President of the Michigan State AFL-CIO.

SB 652 is being fast tracked through the legislative process just when a legal case is about to be heard challenging the way the Legislature behaved during the 2012 lame duck session. Michigan’s Open Meetings Act is supposed to guarantee citizens and journalists access to the legislative process. This basic democratic practice is especially important when the bills being discussed are divisive. Yet in December of last year, legislation passed without public comment while people were locked out of our Capitol Building.

Whose interests are served if the judge in this case and others like it can be handpicked by a Republican, sympathetic to the Snyder administration?

The Michigan Association for Justice raises equally troubling aspects of SB 652.

The way the law is written would expand the Court of Claims jurisdiction, removing the right to jury trial from many cases, especially civil rights cases. It would also apply to FOIA [Freedom of Information Act], Open Meetings act case and promote secrecy in government rather than promoting the public interest in transparency.

Reassignment of the Court of Claims to certain hand picked Court of Appeals judges operating in a system not designed for this role is contrary every notion of fundamental fairness at the core of our state and nation. Even beyond the due process and separation of powers issues self-evident with this agenda driven scheme, the true impact of this Bill is fraught with adverse consequences for Michigan citizens.

Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, had this to say.

It’s shameful the legislature is pushing through a bill to allow elected officials to handpick judges and circumvent the due legal process. Governor Snyder and this administration have made it clear when they don’t like how the game’s played, they rewrite the rules. These bills are divisive, and instead of increasing transparency — like was promised by Snyder – they increase shadowy operations in government. We’re calling on the governor to do the right thing by vetoing this bad bill.

Late last month, the Senate rushed SB 652 through the legislative process and approved it in a party-line vote. The bill was voted out of the House Government Operations Committee on Tuesday and advanced to its second reading in the House. House Democrats offered amendments to ensure citizens access to the courts, save taxpayer money and protect the constitutional right to have a trial by jury, but House Republicans rejected them.

House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel and the House Democrats are fighting hard to defeat SB 652.

This is just another example of Republicans changing the rules on citizens, and it would affect hundreds of people who currently have cases in the Court of Claims. By allowing Supreme Court chief justice to pick and choose which judges hear challenges against the state, they make it likely that court cases will be dismissed before they have a fair day in court. This isn’t democracy – it’s partisan politics at its worst, and it makes it harder for citizens to hold their government accountable.

I share all of these concerns about SB 652, along with questions about what it will ultimately cost Ingham County and the state. I’m especially suspicious of the speed at which it’s being rammed through the legislature. When they’re trying to pull a fast one with a partisan agenda — like the passage of Right to Work (For Less) — the Michigan GOP has proven how quickly it can move. Yet Medicaid expansion languished for a year before being passed, without immediate effect. SB 652, which could become law by the end of the month, would have immediate effect. In fact, it would have retroactive effect, causing pending cases to be transferred to a new court, said the Michigan Association for Justice.

What’s more, according to Jonathan Oosting of MLive, “Ironically, any challenge to the new law would be heard by judges in the new Court of Appeals pool that it would create. Under current law, any appeal also would be heard by the Court of Appeals.”

Once this train has left the station, the bill’s opponents — and Michigan citizens — may have no recourse. That’s why it’s essential to reach out to your Representative right away, to voice your opposition to SB 652. You can use this tool created by the Michigan state AFL-CIO to send an email, or find your Representative’s phone number HERE and make a phone call. Time is of the essence.

Republicans already hold enough power in Michigan. The last thing we need is to let them grab even more.

[CC photo credit: J.-H. Janßen | Wikimedia Commons]