Emergency Managers get Taken to Court: An Update On The Case Against Public Act 4

by Paul Abowd

While citizens groups collect signatures to put the Emergency Manager law up for referendum, the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice has rooted its months-long legal challenge in claims that the law violates several basic provisions of Michigan’s constitution. I spoke with Sugar Law’s Tova Perlmutter in January, who gave me an update on their case.

Shortly after Sugar Law filed the suit with an Ingham County judge in July, Gov. Rick Snyder asked that it be heard by the state’s Supreme Court, where conservatives hold a 4-3 edge.

Sugar Law’s lawyers are fighting to keep the case in lower court where they can compel the state to disclose details about the law’s inner workings.

Snyder has defended the request to expedite the proceedings, arguing that the economic crisis in the state demands quick action, and that the constitutionality of the law must be determined so the state can move forward with its financial plan.

The state bases its defense of the case on the claim that cities are “creatures of the state.” The Michigan Constitution gives state government the power to charter, or legally establish cities, and therefore gives them the power to withdraw those charters—to essentially dissolve cities.

“What they’re saying is basically there’s no fundamental right to local representative government in the state,” says Perlmutter.

Five months have passed and the Supreme Court has not yet decided to grant Snyder’s request.

The state’s lawyers, meanwhile, have appealed a lower court ruling that would have allowed Sugar Law access to state documents about the inner workings of the EM law.

The case is presently in three different courts: Ingham County, the state appeals court, and the state Supreme Court.

The Sugar Law Center’s initial complaint can be read at their website, http://www.democracyemergency.org. Here’s a summary of their argument:

— The EM law violates the separation of powers provision in the state constitution. By passing a law that allows the executive branch (the governor) to appoint decision makers at the local level, the suit argues that the state legislature has improperly delegated powers to the executive.

— Public Act 4 violates home rule provisions in the constitution which allow citizens the right to vote on matters of local concern. The EM law is a pretty obvious breach, given that appointed managers have the power to repeal local laws and dissolve government, with no accountability to citizens.

— States cannot force cities to take on new or expanded programs without providing full funding, which stems from a 1978 amendment to the state’s constitution. City governments in financial straits, says Perlmutter, must not be forced to pay the salaries of the emergency manager and their staff.

The ballot initiative to repeal Public Act 4 continues to be the driving force of opposition to the EM law, and will shake out before any decision about the law is made in courts. If voters repeal the law, the lawsuit would become moot.

Still, the Sugar Law Center believes the legal challenge is essential. “It’s important to tackle this outrage on multiple fronts,” said Perlmutter. “There needs to be a legal system review of this law.”

For one thing, a decision in Michigan will affect the willingness of other state legislatures to pursue similar laws to address an economic crisis that is not by any means limited to Michigan, or the Midwest.

“This is not just Michigan’s problem, not just Detroit’s problem,” said Perlmutter. “This is part of a national movement to reduce the say of poor people and people of color.”