The mosquitos buzzing around Gov. Rick Snyder and the GOP-Legislature these days are wearing black robes.
The Ingham County Circuit Court is making its presence known these days by raising legal questions about the laws coming out of the Capitol this session. At least six times in the last seven weeks, the court has temporarily put the breaks on a Snyder-signed law.
Their opinions aren’t sticking at the appellate level, but the Ingham bench — if only for a few days — is raising public questions about what the heck Snyder & Friends are doing.
The latest example came last week when Judge Clinton Canady III suspended the immediate implementation of two new laws out of concern that neither had the required two-thirds support in the GOP-run state House to make them effective immediately.
He threw down a temporary restraining order on both laws. One law would stop graduate student research assistants from unionizing. The second would keep school districts from taking union dues out of employees’ checks. Neither, he said, should take effect until next April or until the constitutionality of how the House conducts its immediate effect vote is settled.
The state Court of Appeals lifted the restraining order Monday and politely told Canady it would handle the case from now on. But the House Democrats benefited from a 17-minute scathing (albeit inaccurate) portrayal of events on Rachel Maddow’s national MSNBC show.
Why do Ingham County’s judges get all the luck?
Since new laws are generated in the city of Lansing, most resulting court challenges originate in the Ingham County Circuit Court, giving our judges a bigger stage to opine on statewide issues. Back in the 1990s, Judge James Giddings, now retired, went a few rounds with then-Gov. John Engler for the former’s rulings on a prisoners’ rights lawsuit.
Now, Chief Judge William Collette has become Snyder’s sparring partner. Recently, he ordered that financial review teams — the gubernatorial appointed group that figures out if an emergency manager should be named for a broke city or school district — meet in public.
The initial decision and others that followed created interesting theater this spring as emergency managers in Flint and the Highland Park School district were pulled from power only to be put back in by an appellate court.
The Ingham Court’s decisions haven’t all been for show. After Collette’s decision on the unconstitutionality of a mandated 4 percent contribution that state employees were ordered to set aside for retiree health care, Snyder & Friends changed course and refunded each state employee around $1,000 a piece shortly after the new year.
Collette’s presence also has forced Snyder to go straight to the GOP-controlled state Supreme Court on two high-profile questions — the constitutionality of the “pension tax,” or the elimination of the state income tax exemption on pension income, and a new law that gives appointed emergency managers the power to alter bargained contracts.
The Ingham County Court’s power isn’t a secret in the legal community, which makes a spot on the bench appealing to district court judges and local lawyers. It can also generate interest from statewide interest groups looking to support a particular candidate — a dynamic we could see this year with Judge Paula Manderfield opting not to seek re-election.
Here’s a recap of the Court’s most recent rulings.
2/15/12 Collette rules that emergency financial review teams should meet in public. The Highland Park School District’s new emergency manager was temporarily removed from office and the Detroit Financial Review Team began meeting in public.
2/15/12 Collette overturns a state law that had scrapped Oakland County’s new commissioner district maps. While upheld, in part, in the Court of Appeals, the state Supreme Court struck down Collette’s ruling.
3/20/12 Judge Rosemarie Aquilina kicks out Flint Emergency Manager Michael Brown for about a week since the Flint Financial Review Team never met in public. The Court of Appeals put Brown back into office six days later.
3/20/12 Collette rules the state cannot enter into a consent agreement with Detroit until March 29, as part of another maturation of the Open Meetings complaint against the Detroit Financial Review Team. The Court of Appeals invalidated the ban three days later and told Collette they’d take care of the matter until further notice.
4/2/12 Canady agrees with House Democrats on their “immediate effect” argument. The Court of Appeals paused the injunction a week later.
4/2/12 Judge Joyce Draganchuk bans the Detroit Financial Review Team from meeting to sign a consent agreement with Detroit on the argument that state law only allows the body to exist for 90 days. The Court of Appeals lifted the ruling two days later, allowing a consent agreement to be signed.