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Michigan governor asks state Supreme Court to rule on constitutionality of emergency

Gov. Rick Snyder has asked the state Supreme Court to rule directly on the constitutionality of the Emergency Manager law, which is being challenged in Ingham Circuit Court.

The Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act — or Emergency Manager law — enacted this spring, gives state-appointed officials unprecedented power over local governments, including the ability to fire elected officials, break contracts, and dissolve towns.

Supporters of the measure say that it creates a mechanism for making politically unpopular but necessary budget cuts and will keep economically struggling towns out of bankruptcy.

In June a group of 28 people from across the state filed suit against Snyder and state Treasurer Andy Dillon in Ingham County, arguing that the law should be suspended because it conflicts with the state constitution.

The complaint alleges that the law “violates the rights of local voters by attempting to delegate law-making power and the power to adopt local acts to unelected emergency mangers, by suspending the rights of local electors to establish charters and to elect local officials, and by imposing substantial new costs and expenses upon local municipalities without providing new revenue.”

Snyder is asking the state high court to take the case up immediately, without waiting for it to be heard by the circuit or appeals courts, a process that could take years.

“As Governor, I submit that this constitutional challenge involves controlling issues of public law of such public moment as to require early and final determination by the Michigan Supreme Court,” he said in an Executive Message filed with the court Aug. 12.

“[T]he Act can serve as an essential tool to address the austere fiscal realities local units of government face after a decade of economic challenges,“ Snyder wrote. “Without a bypass, this lawsuit may take years to reach finality, regardless of the substantive disposition of this case; the subject matter requires an expeditious resolution.”

The Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, which is lead counsel for the group that brought the lawsuit, said that they will oppose Snyder’s request to have the state Supreme Court take over the case.

“The mentality behind the emergency manager law is that fair process doesn’t matter, input from all stakeholders doesn’t matter, and decisions are better if they are simple and fast,” said John Philo, legal director for Sugar Law. “This rush to the Supreme Court reflects the same attitude, and shows a fundamental mistrust of the state’s established judicial system.”

“The nature of our courts is that the initial fact-finding and introduction of critical evidence occurs at the circuit court level,” Philo said. “It is troubling that the governor wants to skip that phase.”

This is the second time this summer that Snyder has asked the state’s high court to intervene in disputes over the legality of his initiatives. In June he asked the state Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of imposing new taxes on the pensions of state workers.

Retired Ingham Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Glazer has written on the Emergency Manager law and how the state Supreme Court may handle legal challenges.

“The Michigan state Supreme Court majority is probably ideologically attuned to the governor’s positions,” he said.

Glazer said that he believes the court will agree to take up the case.

“We need finality on the constitutionality of this law,” he said. “Anybody who is interested in public law in Michigan is going to be very interested in what this court decides.”

The Emergency Manager law has raised some legal issues that will not be resolved by a state Supreme Court ruling in this case, however.

The group that is suing on questions of the role of local government and the right to elect local officials is not arguing about one of the thorniest legal matters raised by the law — the fact that it gives Emergency Managers the power to break contracts.

Both the state and federal constitutions have provisions that prohibit laws that allow for the violation of contracts, and several public employee organizations have already asked the federal court to block the Emergency Manager law on this ground.

“Whatever the Michigan state court decides about the state or federal constitutionality of the measures that are before it, the US Supreme Court has the last word on federal constitution.“ Glazer said. “That is particularly so with regard to the contract clauses.”

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