Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April 30, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Federal Judge Weighing Constitutionality of Michigan's Emergency Manager Law
 Protestors Antonio D. Casssone, from left, Abayomi Azikiwe
and Jean Irwin hold a demonstration at the federal courthouse in
Detroit on Wednesday ahead of the hearing on Michigan's
emergency manager law.
Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The fate of a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the state’s Emergency Manager law will soon be determined by a federal judge.

U.S District Court Judge George Caram Steeh ruled Wednesday that he will issue a written decision on a request from the state Attorney General’s office to toss out the complaint that alleges Public Act 436 dilutes the right to vote.

The lawsuit, representing nearly two dozen plaintiffs, was filed last year as the new law went into effect, giving state-appointed emergency managers in several Michigan cities and school districts the power to amend budgets, change contracts and consolidate or eliminate departments.

Wednesday’s hearing in federal court in Detroit spanned more than two hours and drew a crowd of nearly 100 union members, retirees, activists, residents and employees, prompting Steeh to relocate the hearing to a larger courtroom.

Attorneys behind the suit complain that it violates federal collective bargaining rights, due process, voting and representative government rights under the U.S. Constitution and is unequally applied in minority communities. But the state contends the plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate any of their claims including harm to voting rights or elections.

Michael Murphy, a lawyer for the state Attorney General’s office, argued the state’s motion, acknowledging the statute is “unique” but so are the financial times in Michigan.

“It’s not only a unique statute. It’s a unique time that needs unique solutions,” he told Steeh, noting that the act is less restrictive than some other alternatives, including receivership and bankruptcy. “Do they want a judge ruling their communities?”

Murphy further argued that voters in areas under emergency management have not been stripped of the right to vote and claimed the law is not unfairly applied based on the race or wealth of an individual, rather it’s based on the wealth of a municipality or a school district as a whole.

“These are communities on the brink of collapse, and there’s a way to save them,” he said. “This is not about the right to vote. It’s about what power elected officials have.”

Meanwhile, four attorneys for the plaintiffs conveyed to Steeh why the suit is plausible and should proceed.

“The law is blatantly unconstitutional,” said Julie Hurwitz of the National Lawyers Guild, noting their allegations have been stated “factually and legally.”

Plaintiff attorney Herbert Sanders added the law creates a stigma and disenfranchisement “that is indeed a badge of slavery.”

Wednesday’s hearing comes after Steeh in February ruled that an amended version of the suit, not specifically targeting Detroit, could move forward. U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Steven Rhodes, who is presiding over Detroit’s bankruptcy, previously agreed three separate times that a stay on the lawsuit should be lifted.

The act went into effect in March 2013 after voters repealed in November 2012 a prior law called Public Act 4 that granted emergency managers many of the same powers. Public Act 4 replaced the original, less powerful 1990 law that gave state-appointed managers no power to change contracts.

Emergency managers are running Allen Park, Detroit, Flint and Hamtramck and school districts in Detroit, Highland Park and Muskegon Heights. State oversight remains in Ecorse, Inkster, Benton Harbor, River Rouge and Pontiac.
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From The Detroit News:

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