Michigan Emergency Management System Accused of being Inherently Discriminatory

Thursday, March 17, 2016
Catherine Phillips (photo: Netroots Nation)

By Charity Smith, Courthouse News Service

 

(CN) - Flint's leaded-water crisis drives home the discrimination inherent in Michigan's scheme of putting unelected emergency managers in poor, usually black, communities, attorneys said in a new Sixth Circuit brief.

 

More commonly known as the emergency-manager law, Michigan's P.A. 436 (pdf) allows Gov. Rick Snyder to suspend all elected officials in financially distressed municipalities and transfer their power to an appointee of his choosing.

 

While the city of Flint is still grappling with its emergency manager's 2014 decision to switch its water supply to the corrosive Flint River, locals say the scheme carries a host of other insidious problems.

 

Detroit union official Catherine Phillips led a federal complaint over the issue in March 2013, but Detroit's bankruptcy later that year put a freeze on all pending civil actions against Michigan state officials.

 

After finally reopening the Phillips case in 2014, however, U.S. District Judge George Steeh decided to advance only the claim that P.A. 436 racially discriminates in violation of the equal-protection clause.

 

To have the Sixth Circuit decide whether Steeh's order was proper, Phillips and the other plaintiffs stipulated to the dismissal of their remaining claim and appealed last year to the Sixth Circuit.

 

They filed a brief in support of that appeal Friday with the Cincinnati-based federal appeals court, contending that the emergency-manager law fundamentally tramples citizens' rights under the Voting Rights Act.

 

When voters in Michigan's poorest cities go to the polls on Election Day, the emergency-manager law ensures has the net effect of ensuring that the candidates they chose "have no authority to govern," according to the brief.

 

"The result is that these Michigan citizens have lost their fundamental right to vote under the Constitution and have otherwise had their right to vote debased and diluted in comparison with other Michigan residents," the brief continues. "The governance system imposed by P.A. 436 results in a profound lack of public accountability to the persons governed."

 

In addition to Flint's poisoned water supply, "the ongoing failure of the Detroit Public Schools exemplifies the gross failures of P.A 4 and P.A. 436 to actually solve the problems they are purportedly designed to address and further exemplify the lack of public accountability and responsiveness upon which Michigan's traditional forms of democratic governance are based," the brief continues.

 

Phillips and the other challengers are represented in their appeal by the Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice, National Lawyers Guild, Sanders Law Firm, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

 

A press release Monday from the Center for Constitutional Right says "emergency mangers have been imposed almost exclusively upon low-income communities of color throughout the state."

 

While the measure affects only 2 percent of the state's white population, 50 percent of black Michiganders are under emergency-manager rule.

 

The appeal poses a new wrinkle in the effort to assign blame for the crisis Flint.

 

Snyder is scheduled to appear this Thursday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for its third hearing on the crisis.

 

The governor on Friday called for state auditors to launch a full investigation into the handling of "Flint and Genesee County public health issues."

 

Meanwhile Tuesday, Snyder announced that he has put three school nurses to work this week to assist with Flint students who may suffering from lead exposure.

 

To Learn More:

State of Michigan Wouldn’t Let Flint Switch to Safe Water (by David Eggert, Associated Press)

Gov. Rick Snyder’s Top Officials Knew of Flint Water Link to Disease Surge 10 Months before Snyder Told Public (by David Eggert and Ed White, Associated Press)

Flint Official Warned Against Water Switch (by John Flesher, Associated Press)

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