Michigan Senate votes to change venue for state suits

By David Eggert

Associated Press

LANSING (AP) -- The Republican-controlled Michigan Senate voted along party lines Wednesday to change which judges hear lawsuits filed against the state, moving Court of Claims cases from Ingham County to the state appeals court.

Democrats said the move is overtly political because Ingham circuit judges in the Lansing area with ties to the Democratic Party have been overturning GOP-enacted laws, which in turn are often reinstated by more conservative appellate courts. Republicans countered that it makes no sense to have one county electing judges who handle cases from around the state, in addition to local cases. They also argued it is a burden for Ingham, though the county's costs are reimbursed by the state.

The fast-tracked bill was approved 26-11 less than a week after it was introduced.

"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.

But the measure's sponsor, Republican Sen. Rick Jones of Grand Ledge, just west of Lansing, said lawmakers played politics in the 1970s in deciding to no longer have judges from around the state hear claims against Michigan and instead hand one county the task.

"What we did today is reform a system," he said.

The legislation would let the Supreme Court appoint four appeals court judges for two-year terms to be Court of Claims judges. Their rulings could still be appealed to the appeals court, and cases would be heard in Detroit, Grand Rapids and Lansing.

The bills now heads to the GOP-led House, where a spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger said action could occur quickly if Bolger determines that waiting would cause too much uncertainty for the legal system and pending cases.

In recent years, Ingham judges have ruled for labor unions and against Republican Gov. Rick Snyder on challenges to the right-to-work law, emergency manager laws and paycheck deductions from state employees and teachers.

Also Wednesday, the Senate voted mostly along party lines to add judgeships in some counties, remove them in others and propose the consolidation of some over time to align mostly with recommendations from the Supreme Court. Wayne County would lose four and Saginaw and Pontiac one each. Macomb County would gain three judgeships, Kent County two and Oakland and Van Buren counties one a piece.

That bill introduced last week also goes to the House. Senators crossing party lines to support it were Democrats Steve Bieda of Warren and Jim Ananich of Flint; those Republicans opposing it were Patrick Colbeck of Wayne County's Canton Township and David Robertson of Grand Blanc.

The state covers local judges' salaries and retirement benefits, while local courts handle their health care and the costs of staff.

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Online:

Senate Bill 652:

http://1.usa.gov/1gdcuOu.

SB 653:

http://1.usa.gov/1bDMu93.

Published: Fri, Nov 1, 2013