Emergency Manager Law

September 12, 2016

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. 

In 2014 Judge George Caram Steeh granted the state’s motion to dismiss the majority of the case.  He allowed one claim to go forward: equal protection under the law.  In order to ultimately prevail on this claim, however, the plaintiffs would have to marshal evidence to prove that Public Act 436’s disproportionate impact on communities of color was the product of intentional race discrimination.  The ACLU of Michigan joined the legal team litigating the case, and after a period of discovery it was decided that the equal protection claim would be voluntarily dismissed without prejudice so that Judge Steeh’s dismissal of the remainder of the claims could be immediately appealed.  Unfortunately, in September 2016 the Sixth Circuit affirmed the dismissal. 

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

View the full 2014-2015 Legal Docket.