Saturday, March 12, 2016

Brief Filed in Suit Challenging Emergency Manager Law in Michigan
Jennifer Dixon
Detroit Free Press 8:59 p.m. EST
March 11, 2016

Lawyers who are challenging Michigan's emergency manager law have taken their case to a higher court.

In a brief filed late Thursday with the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, lawyers for about 20 plaintiffs said Michigan's emergency manager law "has principally been imposed on majority African-American cities and school districts" and removes "all governing power from local elected officials and transfers that power to political appointees" in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit was first filed in U.S. District Court in Detroit in 2013, but federal Judge George Caram Steeh dismissed all but one count in November 2014. Plaintiffs had the last count dismissed, allowing them to appeal to the 6th Circuit.

John Philo, a lawyer with the Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice in Detroit who is involved in the case, said Michigan's emergency manager laws is unique and so is the legal case.

"The issues before the 6th Circuit are ones that have not been heard anywhere in the country. This is the first time the courts have been asked to decide whether or not you can have governance over a city that is appointed. Until this law, it’s been assumed we have a right to elect officials who can make the laws ... ordinances. We believe the Constitution requires anyone with the power to make laws be chosen by the people and that requires an election."

Gov. Rick Snyder signed Public Act 436 in to law in December 2012, just weeks after voters rejected its earlier incarnation, Public Act 4 of 2011.

Under Public Act 436, an emergency manager, appointed by the state, runs a city or school board and decides what responsibilities a mayor or school board will have. An emergency manager can also change the salaries of elected officials. Detroit's former emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, oversaw the city's bankruptcy.

Opponents have used the water crisis in Flint and Detroit Public Schools' financial crisis to criticize the state's emergency manager law. Flint was under a state-appointed emergency manager when it switched from Lake Huron water treated by the Detroit water system to Flint River water treated by the city's water treatment plant. Flint failed to add phosphates and the corrosive water caused lead to leach from joints, pipes and fixture, sending unsafe lead levels into homes.

DPS, meanwhile, has had a series of state-appointed emergency managers and is so broke it has said it may not have enough money to pay teachers beginning next month.

Philo said Flint "shows the risks of having a government that is not transparent and unaccountable to the community it represents. There’s a degree of transparency that comes with democratic government that’s not there when you have an emergency manager. They're not making decisions in the public eye. They don’t have to have public meetings for these kinds of decisions."

According to the appeal, more than half of Michigan's African-American population has been subject to emergency management in their cities or school districts or both.

"On election days, the majority of Michigan's African-American voters, many poor people of all races, and other residents of the same localities have gone to the polls to cast ballots for candidates of their choice but these candidates have no authority to govern," the appeal says.

Contact Jennifer Dixon: 313-223-4410 or

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