NLG Attorneys Challenge Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law

By Henry Schneider and Cynthia Heenan, NLG Detroit and Michigan Chapter

Recent crises have focused national attention on Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law. In fall 2015, news broke that Flint’s 100,000 residents had been consuming lead-contaminated water for two years. Flint began drawing its water supply from the Flint River in 2012 to save money under the authority of EM Darnell Earley. While bottled water donations are providing temporary relief for many, homeless and undocumented populations remain especially vulnerable. Inmates at Genesee County Jail may still be consuming and bathing in lead-contaminated water.

The water crisis in Flint is just one example of emergency management failing miserably. In January, Detroit Public Schools (DPS) teachers and students began engaging in “sickouts” to protest deplorable conditions in their buildings and classrooms. A series of Emergency Managers appointed by the Governor since 2009 have run DPS into the ground. While state officials tinker with “innovative” education experiments, 50% of the DPS budget goes to pay off debt. Abysmal funding, enormous class sizes, and dangerous facilities have made DPS a pipeline into the prison-industrial complex.

Emergency Manager Laws in Michigan empower the Governor to replace elected local governments with corporate-style executives to cure local “financial emergencies”—ones largely due to decades of reduced state revenue sharing. Emergency Managers have sweeping powers to amend union contracts, privatize services, and even change municipal water supplies in the name of saving money, with no popular accountability whatsoever.

In 2012, voters overwhelmingly repealed Michigan’s previous Emergency Manager Law. Michigan’s legislature then passed a nearly-identical bill which included appropriations provisions to shield it from further public referendum. In March of 2013, a coalition of Detroit citizens, elected officials, workers and religious and community leaders challenged the Emergency Manager Law on federal constitutional grounds. They charge that the law is a new device to accomplish old objectives: stripping Black communities of political power and privatizing public services in the process. It is no coincidence that more than half of Michigan’s Black residents live under Emergency Managers.

The suit alleges that the Emergency Manager Law violates plaintiffs’ rights: to elect officials with legislative power; to a republican form of government; to exercise meaningful voting rights; to freedom of speech; and to petition the government.  The Law constitutes a “vestige of slavery” and violates equal protection by targeting predominantly Black communities.

The district court dismissed all claims except for plaintiffs’ as-applied equal protection claim. Plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed that claim without prejudice in order to appeal the entire case to the Sixth Circuit. The Governor and the State claim there is no right to local government run by locally-elected representatives. They are free, they say, to ruthlessly cut and privatize municipal services and dismantle local governments, accountable only to the bottom line. If they are right, your town could be the next Flint.

The plaintiffs are represented by NLG Michigan and Detroit Chapter attorneys Cynthia Heenan, John Philo, Herb Sanders, Julie Hurwitz, Bill Goodman and Mark Fancher, with support from law clerks Nicholas Klaus, Kathleen Garbacz, Holland Locklear, Rasheed Gilmer, and Henry Schneider.

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