Bill would shift venue for state suits to Court of Appeals

 Opponents call move ‘partisan rigging’ and ‘political protectionism’

By Steve Thorpe
Legal News

Depending on who you talk to, the fast tracking of legislation to move Court of Claims cases to a different venue is a crass political ploy or streamlined good governance.

The Michigan Senate approved SB 652 last week, which would move Court of Claims cases from their current home in Ingham County Circuit Court to selected jurists from the Michigan Court of Appeals.

The Court of Claims is where citizens can file lawsuits of more than $1,000 against the state or counties.

The new Court of Claims would consist of four judges of the Court of Appeals, chosen from at least two separate of the four current Court of Appeals districts. The Court of Appeals Clerk would serve as the clerk of the revised court.

Introduced in the Senate on Oct. 24, the bill quickly made it out of committee and was approved by a voice vote on Oct. 30. On Tuesday, the bill was approved by the House Government Operations Committee on a 3-2 party line vote. It faces little opposition in the full House and Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign it.

Most observers agree that the measure would move cases against the state of Michigan and its officials from a fairly liberal court to a more conservative one.

Critics of the bill claim it will hinder major cases against the Republican governor and the GOP-dominated legislature. They say that Republicans, dating all the way back to the John Engler era, have always been annoyed by what they perceive as the left-leaning composition of the existing system, based as it is in solidly-Democratic Ingham County.

“Like the overreaches the Republican majority has become so fond of, this bill is nothing more than partisan rigging and shameless political protectionism. It allows the Republican majority to stack the Court of Appeals with Republican appointees and better your chances of having your questionable legislation upheld,” said Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, an East Lansing Democrat, in an Oct. 30 speech on the floor of the Senate.

Defenders of the bill say it is simply a response to shifting workloads and budgetary concerns. In addition, they point to the convenience of providing four locations around the state at which claims could be filed.

Proponents also say that measure remedies a situation where cases involving the entire state are decided by judges elected by a small percentage of the state electorate.

“Every year we look at reports and decide where we should be adding or cutting judges,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge. “This year we were working on adding three judges to Macomb County, which is the most under-judged county in the whole state. While I was looking at that, I asked the question ‘why is the Court of Claims all in Ingham County where about 3 percent of the people of Michigan elect judges? How did that happen?’”

Jones said criticism that the measure was somehow being sneaked quickly through the legislature was baseless.

“As anybody knows, when I take on a project in the Senate Judiciary Committee I move it as fast as possible,” he said. “Everybody in Lansing is very aware that the Senate Judiciary Committee handles more bills than any other committee in Lansing. We do a lot of good work. The other reason to get it done swiftly is to not leave anybody on the Court of Claims in limbo.”

Jill Wheaton, chair of the Appellate Section of the State Bar Association, sent an email to section members about Jones’ bill and the Council of the Appellate Practice Section then voted to oppose the measure.

Wheaton sent a letter to the House Committee on Government Operations outlining the concerns of her section about the bill. In the letter she said, “the Section is concerned that this proposed legislation may have an adverse impact on the fair and efficient administration of appellate justice in Michigan.” 

In an interview, Wheaton said, “We are opposing the bill for two reasons. Number one: As of right now, court rules say that final judgments from the Court of Claims are appealed to the Court of Appeals. So now you would potentially have Court of Appeals judges reviewing their own rulings, or those of the judge down the hall. The bill says nothing about appeals from the Court of Claims.

“Number two: There’s already going to be some attrition of the Court of Appeals bench in the next couple years, pursuant to an earlier bill. So to take four of the remaining judges and having them fill two roles - Court of Appeals and Court of Claims — may further delay the adjudication of appeals.”

Opponents of the bill vowed to fight on and warned that, even if the measure becomes law, they will take their arguments to the public. 

“I oppose this effort to intervene in the judicial process that allows our citizens to weigh in on such bills,” Sen. Whitmer said concluding her floor speech. “It’s bad public policy being sold in an even worse way, and I can promise my colleagues on the other side of the aisle that the people of Michigan won’t be forgetting this action here today.”

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