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Michigan Civil Rights Commission urges U.S. Supreme Court to review emergency manager law

Apr 25, 2017

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission wants the U.S. Supreme Court to take up a case against Gov. Snyder.

That’s what commissioners decided with a 5-0 vote Tuesday. They ordered the Michigan Department of Civil Rights to file an amicus brief urging the high court to review the issues raised in the case Bellant v. Snyder.

The case makes the claim that Michigan’s emergency manager law, Public Act 436, violates the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting power of people in certain communities, particularly African Americans.

Lower federal courts have dismissed most of the plaintiffs’ claims, including the Voting Rights Act argument. The plaintiffs are now petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to review those claims.

In a resolution supporting the amicus brief, the commission said that brief “shall present the commission’s position that Michigan’s emergency manager law shall be subject to judicial review under the federal Voting Rights Act, for the reasons outlined in the findings and recommendations set forth in the Flint Water Crisis Report: Systemic Racism Through the Lens of Flint.”

That’s a highly critical report the commission issued earlier this year, which found that “the actions resulting in the poisoning of the city’s water supply abridged the civil rights of Flint residents under state law.” It asserted that “a complex mix of historical, structural and systemic racism combined with implicit bias led to decisions, actions, and consequences in Flint would not have been allowed to happen in primarily white communities.”

The report made several recommendations, including “replacing or restructuring Michigan’s emergency manager law.”

Russ Bellant is the lead plaintiff in Bellant v. Snyder. He says it’s a “big deal” that the commission, whose members are all appointed by the governor, thinks the lawsuit raises serious concerns.

“They’re recognizing what we’ve long experienced, that [voting] rights are unequally applied and disproportionately punitive under emergency management,” Bellant said. “And to have their voice added to the voices that have come together in the lawsuit is very encouraging.”

Rogelio Landin, CEO of an educational resources company, urged the commission to “embrace the opportunity” to play a role in the case.

“The role of an amicus, in terms of filing, can have national implications,” Landin said. Because the Flint water crisis has received so much attention, “this one is such a case. National infrastructure is a huge issue.”

But ultimately, Landin said this is a case about due process.

“This isn’t just about Flint,” he said. “This isn’t just about school districts that have been under emergency management, and the outcomes or results, good, bad or indifferent. This is about the right to be heard, which is a fundamental American right.”

Gov. Snyder’s office declined to comment on the commission’s vote.

The Civil Rights Commission held a special meeting to vote on the resolution, because amicus briefs need to be submitted in early May. It’s not clear when the Supreme Court will decide whether to take up the case.