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Emergency management and the Supreme Court

Apr 28, 2017

Three days ago, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission asked the highest court in the land to decide whether our state’s emergency manager law is unconstitutional.

Specifically, the issue is whether the law violates the federal Voting Rights Act by lessening the voting power of minorities. Nearly all the cities and school districts where emergency managers have been appointed had black majority populations.

Since local control is temporarily suspended any time emergency management is in force, the case in question, Bellant vs. Snyder, argues that this unfairly weakens minority voters politically, something the Voting Rights Act was designed to prevent.

Well, since that announcement, I’ve heard a few people, diehard opponents of the emergency manager law, rejoice over this decision. Essentially, they thought that the Michigan Civil Rights Commission was taking a stand against the hated law.

But I think that’s a complete misunderstanding of what’s going on here – and that if the high court does made a decision, it is likely to be exactly the opposite of what opponents of this law want. I think the Supreme Court is likely to rule that constitutionally, the emergency manager law is just fine – and the Civil Rights Commission knows it.

Consider this: the Michigan Civil Rights Commission includes seven commissioners, all appointed by Governor Snyder. There isn’t a Medgar Evers in the bunch. Only two of them are black, and one of those, Linda Lee Tarver, is a vice-chair of the Republican Party and was a fervent Trump supporter early on.

Bellant vs. Snyder, the case that argues that the emergency manager case was unconstitutional, has lost in the lower federal courts. It may be that the Supreme Court simply declines to take the case, letting the lower court rulings stand.

But if the Court does take the case and finds that the emergency manager law does not violate the Voting Rights Act, that could have ramifications that stretch far beyond this particular case. Six months ago, this might have been a gamble worth taking. However, something new has been added to the court: Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch. There is nothing in his record to indicate that he would be likely to want to strike a blow for minority voting rights.

With his appointment, the court again takes on the composition it had before the death of Antonin Scalia – and that’s not a liberal majority. Personally, I think the emergency manager law, officially known as Public Act 436 of 2012, is improper for other reasons.

In November 2012, the voters went to the polls and, by a solid margin, repealed Snyder’s first emergency manager law. In a display of complete and utter contempt for the will of the people, the Legislature immediately re-enacted the law with a few essentially cosmetic changes.

Then, in what has become a popular legislative dirty trick, they added a small appropriation to the bill just to prevent voters from repealing it again.

Snyder signed it even before the election returns repealing his old law were officially certified. Later, he would appoint the emergency managers who gave us Flint.

So that’s how we got here. Nobody can ever predict with certainty what the Supreme Court will do. But what we can say is this: be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.