Prisoners Excluded From Civil Rights Act

March 30, 2016

A civil rights lawsuit was filed in state court on behalf of young men who had been sent to adult prisons in Michigan when they were under the age of 18 and were sexually assaulted by adult male prisoners and female prison guards.  The state moved to dismiss the case, arguing that prisoners are not protected by Michigan’s civil rights law, known as the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA), because in 1999 the Michigan legislature amended ELCRA to specifically remove prisoners from the protections of that law. 

The trial court denied the state’s motion to dismiss because the 1999 amendment had been struck down as unconstitutional in an earlier case, and the state had not appealed that ruling.  The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed by a vote of 2-1, holding that the state was not bound by the earlier ruling and the 1999 amendment to ELCRA was not unconstitutional. 

In February 2016 the ACLU of Michigan helped lead a coalition of ten civil rights organizations in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in the Michigan Supreme Court, urging review and reversal of the Court of Appeals’ decision.  We argued that targeting an unpopular group of people (in this case, prisoners) for removal from the general coverage of our state’s civil rights laws was unconstitutional and dangerous.  We also argued that once a law is struck down as unconstitutional and that ruling becomes final, the state is bound by that ruling if it participated in the previous case.  In March 2016 the Michigan Supreme Court decided the appeal on other grounds, but vacated the parts of the Court of Appeals’ decision that we challenged in our brief. 

(Doe v. Department of Corrections; ACLU Attorney Dan Korobkin; Cooperating Attorney Rick Hills of NYU Law School.)