Michigan’s governor signed into law a bill that will allow claims against the state to be heard by hand-picked judges

Unsatisfied with having control over the House, Senate and Governor’s office, Michigan Republicans have now taken over the judicial system.  As predicted in our earlier blog regarding Senate Bill 652, Governor Rick Snyder has signed into law the controversial bill that was rushed through the House and Senate, with no time given for meaningful debate.  Not a single democrat voted for the bill, which is not only unconstitutional, but so poorly written that it will cause major problems.  Against the urging of numerous attorneys, judges and legal experts, the republican-dominated legislature took no time to consider various implications of the bill, including its impact on other statutes, its impact on active litigation, and the potential costs for the state and Ingham County, to which the cases will be moved.

Now appellate judges appointed by the Michigan Supreme Court (which is currently controlled by a republican majority) will decide all lawsuits filed against the state, instead of democratically elected judges in the Court of Claims.  The Lansing area Court of Claims judges were known for putting a temporary stop to GOP enacted laws.

SB 652 immediately transfers pending and future Court of Claims cases – those seeking at least $1,000.00 in damages from the state – to the Court of Appeals.  The Court of Appeals judges now have jurisdiction over constitutional challenges, civil rights claims, and alleged freedom of information and open meetings violations.

Snyder said in a written statement that because the cases affect the entire state, “it only makes sense that judges from across all of Michigan hear and decide” them.

Concerns about the law have been raised by democrats, Ingham judges, trial lawyers, the State Bar of Michigan, and even a retired GOP legislative aide. They’ve argued that the law is unconstitutional and a power grab that could cause chaos in the legal system.

“It’s disheartening, but not at all surprising, to see the governor once again put his own political needs above doing what’s ethical or what’s right for the people of Michigan,” Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, said in a written statement.

In recent years, judges in democratic leaning Ingham County have ruled for labor unions and against Snyder on challenges to the right to work law, emergency manager laws, and salary deductions from state employees and teachers for retiree health care.  Most of these laws have been reversed by higher courts.

Listed below are some of the many negative effects the bill will have on the state:

  • It does away with meaningful appellate review because the appeal of a Court of Claims ruling will be from a Court of Appeals judge acting as a Court of Claims judge to a Court of Appeals panel.  Appellate decisions will be appealed to the same appellate court.
  • It eliminates the right to a jury trial in a large number of cases, including civil rights cases such as those under the Elliott-Larson Civil Rights Act (ELCRA – which, among other things, protects employees from employer discrimination), the Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (PDCRA), and the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA).
  • It further eliminates the right to a jury trial by expanding the definition of the State to include individual employees, cases that are currently under the jurisdiction of the circuit courts.  It eliminates the right to a jury trial in any action brought by the State against an individual, group, or business who brings an action in the Court of Claims.
  • It disenfranchises some claimants from being able to have full access to justice.  In some cases, the right to a jury trial against the individual co-defendant will be eliminated once the non-consolidated bench trial makes a determination on certain issues, thereby de facto depriving citizens of their fundamental right to a jury.
  • It promotes secrecy in government and shields the State from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Open Meetings Act cases.

The bill will significantly impact malpractice claims against the state (University of Michigan Health System, for example), including elimination of circuit court actions and jury trials against individual physicians.

SB 652 makes it possible for the three branches of government (all of which are republican-dominated) to collude to fast-track unpopular and potentially unconstitutional laws into effect over the objections of the people.  Instead of making government accountable, this bill makes it easy for the government to hold itself above the law.

Reiter & Walsh ABC Law Centers

 

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