Drunk. With. Power.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed legislation today that is one of the final steps in consolidating Republican power in Michigan. The new law moves the Court of Claims — the court where suits against the state government are heard — from the Ingham County Circuit Court where it’s been for decades to Michigan Court of Appeals.
Governor Snyder then stood before reporters and told a lie:
Snyder told reporters a revamped Court of Claims — housed in the Michigan Court of Appeals rather than Ingham County Circuit Court — will be an improvement over the current system because it will assure significant cases involving the state will be heard by judges elected by a wider swath of the Michigan electorate.
Court of Appeals judges that will hear Court of Appeals cases are not “elected by a wider swath of the Michigan electorate”. They are, in fact, appointed by the Republican-dominated state Supreme Court. In other words, Governor Snyder is lying to Michigan residents to try to convince them that this move is something other than an blatant power grab by Michigan Republicans.
[Update: there are 28 Court of Appeals judges who are elected but the four chosen from this pool will be picked by the Republican-dominated state Supreme Court.]
Judge William Collette of the Ingham County Circuit Court was blunt in his assessment:
Ingham County Circuit Court Judge William Collette — who has made rulings both for and against Snyder in recent highly publicized cases involving the emergency manager law and the selection of Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr — said he is “very, very disillusioned at the manner in which this legislation came about, the manner in which it was shoved down the throats of the people of Michigan and the damage it’s going to cause the entire judicial system.
“This is nothing but payback for having the gall to stand up to them,” Collette said.
Judge Collette and his court will no longer be a bulwark against Republican overreach, thanks to the outrageous move by Michigan Republicans.
Bruce Timmons, a longtime Republican staffer for the House Judiciary Committee who retired in March, also testified against the bill, suggesting one provision could be unconstitutional and telling lawmakers the proposal as a whole would have a “a deleterious effects on the system of justice in Michigan.”
The bill specifies that judges assigned to Court of Claims cases must represent at least two of the state’s four Court of Appeals districts. By making that distinction, Timmons said, the bill indicates that the Supreme Court, currently controlled by a Republican-nominee majority, could select up to three judges from a single “favorable” district.
“That’s rigging the deck against those who have to appear in court,” he said, acknowledging that the bill immediately reminded him of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt to stack the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1930s.
But there is a seedier side to this story than just a mere power grab by Republicans. One side effect of the new law is that existing lawsuits against Governor Snyder are conveniently moved to the new Court of Claims that will inevitably be stacked with Republican-friendly judges:
Though legal challenges are expected, the law has immediate effect. That means all of the roughly 100 lawsuits involving the state of Michigan now in the Court of Claims in Ingham County will be shifted to Court of Appeals judges selected by the Michigan Supreme Court.
The law also expands the jurisdiction of the Court of Claims, meaning an unknown number of other lawsuits against the state now in circuit courts around Michigan, also will be moved to the revamped Court of Claims.
That might not seem so bad until you learn that one of the suits that is pending is one to force Governor Snyder to reveal the names of the donors who purchased access to his administration by making donations to the so-called “NERD Fund”:
Highland Park activist Robert Davis, as part of a wide-ranging lawsuit filed Wednesday, is asking a judge to force disclosure of donors to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s NERD Fund and a deposition for Detroit mayoral candidate Mike Duggan.
As I reported here last month, the only known NERD Fund donor is CVS Caremark who was subsequently awarded a $60 million contract to provide prescription drug benefits in Detroit by Snyder-appointee Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.
Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson issued a statement saying, “The question needs to be asked – is this Governor and this legislature’s rush to approve this bill an effort to protect his NERD Fund donors from a lawsuit seeking disclosure filed in Ingham County Circuit Court? [Richard] Baird is now a state employee and the NERD Fund will soon be closed down – where there’s smoke, there’s fire. It’s time for Snyder to come clean on his secret NERD Fund donors, and stop trying to rig the courts to his advantage.”
With this lawsuit now conveniently shunted off to a much more Republican-friendly venue, Governor Snyder may well have put the NERD Fund scandal to rest without ever having to be held accountable for it. It’s huge story that’s gotten almost no attention and now it’s going to die a quiet, undemocratic death.
One final thing: after I was contacted by Christine Cramer, the Senior Director for CVS Caremark Public Relations, who suggested that I had facts wrong in my original reporting, I followed up with some questions for her:
- You say that the contract is not worth $60 million, that my story was inaccurate in that way. What is the actual value of the contract?
- When was the contract signed. I’ve looked at all of the contracts signed by the City of Detroit and the EM during 2012 and 2013 and this one is not listed.
- It is my understanding that, once Kevyn Orr took over as the Emergency Manager of Detroit, he looked into cost savings that involved this contract and there were negotiations that took place to modify it and to make adjustments to benefits. Is this accurate? Do you see your business relationships with Ernst Young, Jones Day, and Milliman as potential conflicts of interest since they were involved in these negotiations that resulted in you keeping the contract even though another provider had proposed greater cost savings?
- How did it come about that CVS Caremark donated to the NERD Fund? Who solicited the donation and why was it made?
- We you aware that the NERD Fund would be paying for some of Kevyn Orr’s living expenses? Do you believe that could represent a conflict of interest since you were involved in contract negotiations with him and his staff?
- Would you encourage other NERD Fund contributors to come forward and identify themselves as donors as CVS Caremark has done?
I never received a response.