House votes to move Michigan lawsuits

By David Eggert

Associated Press

LANSING (AP) -- Rejecting accusations of politicking, Republicans speedily passed legislation Wednesday to have appellate judges decide all lawsuits filed against the state instead of Lansing-area judges known for putting a temporary stop to GOP-enacted laws.

The bill approved 57-52 almost entirely along party lines by the Republican-led House would immediately transfer pending and future Court of Claims cases -- those seeking at least $1,000 in damages from the state -- from the Ingham County Circuit Court to the Michigan Court of Appeals, where four judges would hear the cases instead.

Those judges also would gain immediate jurisdiction over lawsuits against the state now overseen by county judges in Ingham and elsewhere -- constitutional challenges, civil rights claims, and alleged freedom of information and open meetings violations.

Because no changes were made a week after the legislation cleared the GOP-controlled Senate and just two weeks after it was introduced, the bill is expected to be enrolled shortly and sent to Gov. Rick Snyder. The Republican governor will sign it.

"I believe that's a good piece of legislation because it's about broadening the base (of) having judges that will represent all of Michigan," Snyder told reporters Wednesday after signing a tax cut for car and boat buyers. "I think it's great we're going to have an opportunity to have judges from all parts of Michigan hear those cases and decide those cases."

He brushed aside suggestions that his signing the legislation would appear to be self-serving.

"I just try to do the right thing, and politics are politics," Snyder said.

His signature will cap swift legislative action, as Democrats, Ingham judges, trial lawyers, the State Bar of Michigan and even a retired GOP legislative aide raised concerns to no avail that it is unconstitutional and a blatant power grab that could initially cause chaos in the court system.

"The people of Michigan deserve better than this governor, better than this leadership stacking the courts so they can quickly dismiss a claim that's brought against the state," said Rep. Rudy Hobbs, D-Southfield.

The measure's Republican supporters -- which include a pair of conservative lawyers and state Attorney General Bill Schuette -- defended the move as good policy and said it makes no sense to have 3 percent of state voters elect judges to handle statewide cases. Transferring the Court of Claims could ensure a judge hearing state cases has been elected by 25 percent of voters, they said, because the appeals court is divided into four districts.

Since two appellate districts would have to be represented on the Court of Claims under the legislation, that means at least half the state would have a say, said Rep. Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant.

The bill would let the state Supreme Court -- now controlled 5-2 by GOP-nominated justices -- appoint four appeals judges for two-year terms to be Court of Claims judges. Their rulings could be appealed to the appeals court, and cases typically heard in Lansing would also be heard in Detroit and Grand Rapids.

"It's more important that our citizens at least have a reasonable chance of having a case heard closer to their home," Cotter said.

The appeals court and Supreme Court took no position on the measure, and their leaders have withheld comment because they could have to decide its validity.

In recent years, judges in Democratic-leaning Ingham County have ruled for labor unions and against Snyder on challenges to the right-to-work law, emergency manager laws, and salary deductions from state employees and teachers for retiree health care. Many, but not all, of those and other decisions have been reversed by higher courts.

Democrats suspect, but have no proof, that the reason for fast-tracking the bill and allowing no time for changes may lie with one or more suits brought by litigious union activist Robert Davis. He has sued to obtain records involving the selection of Detroit's state-appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr and wants to learn the names of anonymous donors to Snyder's nonprofit fund, which is being dissolved at the governor's request.

Republicans rejected multiple Democratic amendments, such as one that would require Court of Claims judges to be elected on a statewide basis rather than by regional districts. Democrats also complained that Ingham County must absorb a $500,000 cut with no notice and that under the state constitution the House needed two-thirds of members to pass the legislation rather than a simple majority because it is expanding a court's jurisdiction.

Republicans argued they could move ahead without two-thirds support because a new court is not being created. Rather, duties of one statutorily created court are being switched to another one, according to the GOP.

"You are taking away the rights of individuals to a jury trial," said Rep. Sam Singh, E-East Lansing. "In the end, I have to believe this is all about politics."



Senate Bill 652:

Published: Fri, Nov 8, 2013


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