Legislating Behind Closed Doors

February 06, 2015

Senior Judge and Detroit legend Damon Keith once wrote, “Democracy dies behind closed doors.”

In an event that is believed to be unprecedented in Michigan history, public access to the Capitol building was closed off on Dec. 6, 2012 just as a highly controversial right-to-work law was being introduced. For over four hours, members of the public—including union members, journalists, lobbyists, and other concerned citizens—were prevented from going inside as debates were occurring and votes were cast.

Although law enforcement claimed that protesters had caused overcrowding, video and photographic evidence showed that there was plenty of room inside.

It was later discovered that Republican legislative staffers were ordered to occupy seats in the public galleries to make sure that union members and other interested citizens could not attend. Working with a coalition of labor unions, the ACLU of Michigan filed a lawsuit in January 2013 based on the legislature’s violation of the Open Meetings Act, which requires all public bodies in Michigan to deliberate and cast votes in open sessions that are accessible to the public.

The Ingham County Circuit Court denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case in 2013, and the Michigan Court of Appeals rejected the state’s application for an immediate appeal, allowing the ACLU’s claims to go forward. Unfortunately, after the case was transferred to the Michigan Court of Claims, the court granted summary disposition to the state in February 2015, ruling that there was not enough evidence of an Open Meetings Act violation for the case to proceed to trial.

(Cook v. State of Michigan; ACLU Attorneys Kary Moss, Michael J. Steinberg and Dan Korobkin, and Legal Fellow Christina Thacker; Cooperating Attorneys Bryan Waldman, Genevieve Scott, and Michael Pitt and Kevin Carlson of Pitt McGehee; Art Przybylowicz, Jeff Donahue, Michael Shoudy, John Canzano and Andrew Nickelhoff.)
 

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