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The Michigan Law that Wouldn’t Die

By Nahal Zamani, Advocacy Program Manager, Center for Constitutional Rights
Michigan voters spoke loud and clear last month when they repealed their state’s Emergency Manager Law. They said no to unconstitutional power grabs, where unelected appointees can unilaterally rule over entire towns or even dissolve them. But, true to form, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is ignoring them. He claims the managers he appointed are still lawful under the previous law that had been replaced by the Emergency Manager Law the voters overturned. The Center for Constitutional Rights, the Sugar Law Center and others are challenging that claim in court.

The original law, passed in 1990, allowed the governor to appoint financial managers to oversee the fiscal affairs of financially-troubled school districts and cities. In 2011, the legislature passed a new version of the law that expanded these hand-picked managers’ powers to assume unilateral control of not only financial issues but all the affairs of school districts and municipal governments the governor deemed to be in financial emergency. The criteria for defining these ‘emergencies’ was overly vague, and the unelected officials’ powers to run entire cities, if the Governor so decided, was overly sweeping. In a word, the law allowed for the suspension of democratically elected government by executive fiat.

Under the 2011 law (Public Act 4), Emergency Managers could make decisions and enact laws without going through any form of legislative process. Managers had unfettered control of entire cities. They could void collective bargaining agreements and decide public sector wages and pensions; they could shut down schools regardless of their quality and turn fire departments and public utilities over to private corporations; they could even merge cities and dissolve municipalities. Not surprisingly, the governor imposed these measures disproportionately in communities of color, effectively disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of Black, Latino and other ethnic groups throughout the state of Michigan. The city of Pontiac is currently in the process of being dismantled piece by piece; now Detroit is heading towards the same fate.

The fundamental right to self-government that is at the heart of our nation’s most fundamental beliefs was effectively abolished in Michigan. The people were no longer electing those that governed them.

But the people of Michigan were not ready to cede their rights. They knew the threat this represented – a “democracy emergency” – and began to organize. People protested across the state. Twenty-eight Michigan residents challenged the 2011 law as unconstitutional under the Michigan State Constitution. They were represented in the case by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice, Goodman & Hurwitz, the Sanders Law Firm, and Miller Cohen PLC.

Over the last year, groups worked tirelessly to collect signatures seeking a referendum on their state’s emergency manager law, and on Election Day, Michiganders relegated the emergency manager law to the dustbin of history where it belongs.

And there it should have stayed. But like the seven-headed hydra, the emergency manager threat has reared its ugly head again. Instead of honoring the people’s vote, Gov. Snyder decided to back several of the emergency financial managers who claim they have the right to stay in power under the repealed 1990 financial manager law. As if that were not enough, there are recent reports that Republicans intend to put forward a bill similar to the repealed law during the legislature’s lame duck session – which began last week – to replace the law Michiganders thought they had defeated once and for all on Election Day.

In light of this threat, advocates are rolling up their sleeves to be ready to challenge that bill as soon as it appears. Despite the governor’s best efforts, the people of Michigan refuse to back down in this battle for democracy.



News just came out that Members of the Michigan House of Representatives rushed through a Local, Intergovernmental and Regional Affairs Committee House session to pass the new bill (the Local Financial Stability and Choice Act) on Thursday morning. The bill may go before the full House and Senate in the upcoming days.


Co-written by Aya Tasaki.

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Center for Constitutional Rights