Former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley: Speaking Frankly

Oct 18, 2011

Former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley issued more formal opinions about the constitutionality of various Michigan laws than any attorney general in history.

Of course, that’s partly because he served longer in the office than any attorney general in the history of this or any other state-- thirty-seven years. He was elected ten times, and retired before he had to. Now nearly eighty-seven, he is mostly cheerful, healthy, and enjoying life from his home on Lake Lansing.

But he’s worried now, about us -- our state, our nation, and our future. Last week he sent a rather remarkable letter to a number of opinion leaders in this state. “I am writing to you now with a sense of dismay,” he says. “During my time in office I truly tried to serve the people,“ he says, adding with pride that, “during my time in office, very few of my opinions were ever overturned.”

Opinions issued by an attorney general, by the way, have the force of law, unless they are specifically overturned by a court.

Well, the courts have been overturning many of Kelley’s opinions recently, as well as other landmark decisions, and this  deeply bothers him. In what is a fascinating six-page letter, he writes, “During my time in office, I truly tried to serve the people. I felt that we in Michigan were making progress in giving people more control over their lives and more ability to exercise, protect and defend the rights that should be every American‘s birthright.”

But now, he continues, “it seems terribly clear that over the past decade, some basic constitutional rights have been seriously weakened.” Kelley then cites a number of cases. In some, his opinions were later given the force of law by the United States Supreme Court, including the principle that legislators should represent districts of equal size.

Nobody can touch those rulings without a Constitutional amendment. But a number of his other opinions are falling like dominoes. Twenty years ago, he held that it would be unconstitutional to tax pension income. But this year, Governor Snyder proposed and the legislature passed a bill doing just that. “This law should clearly be struck down,” Kelley says. But he is a Democrat -- and fears that the Republican majority on Michigan’s Supreme Court won’t do that.

That isn’t what upsets him most, however. He thinks one of the most “outrageous weakening of citizens’ rights in history” came when the U.S. Supreme Court last year ruled that there could be no limits on the ability of corporations to spend unrestricted funds to influence elections, which overruled another of Kelley’s opinions.

“I am strongly in favor of free enterprise,” Kelley writes, noting that he ran a successful law and lobbying business after leaving office. But he said “I have always held that our country and the constitution were created for our citizens’ freedom and protection, not the advancement of the interests of private, for-profit corporations.”

After I got my copy of the letter, I asked Frank Kelley about it. He said he wrote it because he’d had a good life, but wanted our children and grandchildren to enjoy the same freedoms he’s had. And whether or not you agree with his opinions …

That’s certainly something worth thinking about.