Emergency Manager Law Challenged in Federal Court

March 17, 2015

Public Act 436 gives unelected “emergency managers” sweeping, far-reaching powers to displace or in some cases even dissolve local governments and school districts. A coalition of civil rights groups challenged the law in federal court, and the state filed a motion to dismiss.

In 2013 the ACLU of Michigan filed a friend-of-the-court brief explaining that under international law, the declaration of a state of emergency allowing the suspension of political rights is permissible only when there is an emergency that “threatens the life of the nation.”

In other countries where that standard has been met, there have been terrorist activities, general strikes, natural disasters, economic anarchy, civil war and other events on a comparable scale that have essentially shut down the government or the economy. Notwithstanding their economic challenges, Detroit and other Michigan cities under emergency management continue to function; the nature and quality of the “emergencies” in those cities pale in comparison to those that justify the suspension of political rights under international law.

Additionally, the implementation of the emergency manager law runs afoul of international law’s prohibition of practices that have the “purpose or effect” of racial discrimination. The installation of emergency managers in cities like Pontiac, Flint, Benton Harbor, River Rouge, Highland Park, and of course Detroit disproportionately impact the political rights of people of color. On this latter point, Judge George Caram Steeh denied the state’s motion to dismiss.

In his November 2014 decision Judge Steeh ruled that the gross disparate impact the emergency manager law has had on African Americans was sufficient to allow plaintiffs the opportuntity to prove that the state intentionally discriminated against them, thereby violating their right to equal protection under the law. The ACLU of Michigan signed on as part of the legal team that will litigate the case to completion and is now engaged in discovery.

(Phillips v. Snyder; ACLU Attorneys Mark Fancher and Michael J. Steinberg; additional co-counsel included the Sugar Law Center, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Constitutional Litigation Associates, Herbert Sanders, Goodman & Hurwitz and Miller Cohen.)

To view the full 2014-2015 Legal Docket, click here.

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