Michigan Residents Ask Supreme Court to Review Law That Led to Flint Water Crisis

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Case Challenges Michigan “Emergency Manager” Law

March 31, 2017, Flint, MI – Today, a coalition of Michigan residents, organizations, and civil rights attorneys asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a case challenging Michigan’s controversial Emergency Manager Law. The law allows the State to replace all local elected officials and elected school boards in so-called “financially distressed” municipalities and school districts with an unelected “emergency manager,” accountable only to the governor’s office. The case asserts that the law is racially discriminatory and that it deprives citizens of their rights under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“Michigan’s emergency manager law has no place in a democratic society. The law rips voting rights from predominantly African-American and low-income communities, finding them unworthy of the right to elect those officials who govern their cities, towns, and schools. It is racist and bigoted at its core,” said John Philo, Executive Director of the Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice.   

Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law, Public Act 436, transfers all governing power from locally-elected legislative officials to state-appointed emergency managers. The managers have been imposed almost exclusively upon communities of color throughout the state—more than fifty percent of Michigan’s Black residents have been placed under emergency manager rule, compared to only two percent of the state’s white population. Emergency managers in the City of Flint were directly responsible for the unilateral decisions to switch the source of the city’s water supply to the contaminated Flint River, poisoning the city’s population.

“The travesty of Flint is a poster child for what happens when the government is allowed to run our communities based only on the ‘bottom line,’ with no regard for the democratic process or the human and fundamentally anti-democratic consequences of their decisions. Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law, if allowed to stand, is a model for the current assault on our democratic and civil rights throughout the country,” said Julie Hurwitz, partner in the Detroit civil rights firm Goodman & Hurwitz, PC, appearing on behalf of the Michigan/Detroit National Lawyers Guild.  

Civil rights groups argue that Public Act 436 discriminates on the basis of race, deprives hundreds of thousands of Michigan citizens of their fundamental right to vote, freedom of speech and association, and their rights under the Voting Rights Act. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, affirmed a lower court decision holding that the Voting Rights Act protects only the physical act of casting a ballot.

“The point of democracy is not for people to merely go through the motions of electing those who sit in a given ‘elected seat,’ but for them to have an equal right to participate in democracy by electing those who actually govern,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney Darius Charney. “Given that voting rights are under attack nationwide, especially in communities of color, this is a particularly important case for the Court to consider at this moment.”

Michigan’s law is unprecedented, the first such measure enacted anywhere in the United States that abruptly removes all governing power from all elected officials in the selected community and grants it to the governor’s hand-picked emergency manager. The state’s previous Emergency Manager Law, enacted in 2011, was repealed in a statewide voter referendum in 2012. One month later, the lame-duck Michigan legislature enacted the new emergency manager law. The case petitioned to the Supreme Court today, Bellant v. Snyder, follows an earlier case, Brown v. Snyder, that challenged the 2011 law. Brown was rendered moot when the 2011 law was repealed.

Herb Sanders, an attorney on the case, said, “Emergency managers are not accountable to voters in any way. Yet they have power to make bigger decisions than any elected mayor. Instead of imposing emergency managers on local governments, state leaders should be working together with local officials to prevent communities from getting in financial trouble in the first place by creating real reform that decreases the public debt, creates a recovery system for financially distressed communities, and prioritizes regional and local economic development projects.”

The civil rights groups have also challenged Michigan’s emergency manager law as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The district court allowed that claim to proceed.

The coalition of Michigan residents challenging the law is represented by Professor Samuel Bagenstos of the University of Michigan Law School, the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, the National Lawyers Guild/Michigan-Detroit Chapter, the ACLU Fund of Michigan, and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), along with several Michigan civil rights lawyers at the law firms of The Sanders Law Firm, PC, Goodman & Hurwitz PC, and Constitutional Litigation Associates PC.                                                                  
Read today’s petition here. For more information, visit the Sugar Law Center’s case page and the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.

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The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.

Last modified 

March 31, 2017