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How Did We Get Here? A Refresher On What’s Happening At The Michigan Supreme Court This Week

Michigan Supreme Court
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This week, the Michigan Supreme Court will hear arguments on a debate that started during a contentious and busy lame duck session last year.  Whether or not the state’s highest court will actually step in with a ruling remains to be seen.

As Cheyna Roth reports, the battle is over whether it was okay for the Republican-led Legislature to adopt and then quickly amend minimum wage and paid sick leave ballot initiatives.

December 2018.  Lawmakers were engaging in a marathon, passing hundreds of bills, going late into the night.  It was an intense period of time that included a lot of protestors flooding theCapitolto express their frustration with how democracy was playing out in Lansing.

"Keep your hands off our bills!”

A big issue they had was with a so-called “adopt and amend” strategy Republicans in the Legislature were deploying.  They were about to pass controversial changes to ballot initiatives.  But this all really started before lame duck, before the protests, even before the 2018 election.  Two groups got enough signatures to get their measures on the 2018 ballot.  One would have increased the state’s minimum wage and upped required wages for tipped workers.  The other required employers to offer a certain amount of earned sick time to employees.  When there are ballot initiatives like these, the Legislature can choose to adopt the measure.  

If the Legislature passes the measure into law, it can make changes to the law with a simple majority.  But if the measure is passed by the voters, then it would take a super-majority to change.  Republicans had a majority.  They did not have a super-majority.  Before the 2018 election, Republican leaders decided to pass these measures in the Legislature, but would not say whether they planned to later amend them.  

This put Democrats in an interesting spot.  Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich actually voted against the measures – despite having introduced bills similar bills in the past.  This is him after the November 2018 vote.

"It’s difficult, there’s no question about it, and if I thought they were actually going to raise people wages and actually give people paid sick leave, I would be the strongest champion ever. But when it’s a scam on voters, I have a problem with that."

At the time, some Republicans said it was more of a fail-safe.  They wanted to maybe be able to easily amend the laws because they felt they were not good policy.

Here’s then-Speaker of the House Tom Leonard after the House vote and me asking a follow-up question.

LEONARD: "I believe both of these citizens initiated laws were very poorly written. This is something the Legislature certainly needs to have a conversation and discuss, but right now there’s no plan in place."
ROTH: "So you’re not going to gut these proposals."
LEONARD: "Well, I think that’s a false narrative."

Then the 2018 election happened.  A Democrat won the race for governor, prompting Republicans in the legislature to pass a flurry of bills before then-Governor Rick Snyder – a Republican – left office.

And that brings us back to the protests in December of 2018.  People like Susan Hendricks from Grand Blanc stayed at the Capitol as the measures they supported were significantly changed.

"The acts of the Congress to first take it away from being voted on and then to decide to gut it in lame duck session are reprehensible."

But that wasn’t the end of the story.  Even as these changes were being made, there was a question of whether the Legislature could adopt a measure and then make changes in the same session.

In February, Michigan’s new Attorney General, Democrat Dana Nessel, was asked to weigh in.  But Republicans lawmakers were skeptical of Nessel’s impartiality on the issue.  So the House and Senate asked the Michigan Supreme Court to issue an advisory opinion on the issue as well.

Now, here’s the thing about advisory opinions – they aren’t traditional opinions.  They’re more of a heads-up.  If someone were to challenge this move and file a lawsuit and appeal it …what is the likely outcome?

It’s like reading the synopsis – spoilers included – instead of the whole book.

The Attorney General’s office was asked to argue the case, which brings us to the last interesting little twist in this whole saga.

The attorneys from the AG’s office will argue both sides.  Nessel’s office says they’ve built a conflict wall separating the two sides, and we’ll hear them fight it out in court on Wednesday.

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—Cheyna Roth is a reporter for the Michigan Public Radio network.  Contact WEMU News at734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Before becoming the newest Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network, Cheyna Roth was an attorney. She spent her days fighting it out in court as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Ionia County. Eventually, Cheyna took her investigative and interview skills and moved on to journalism. She got her masters at Michigan State University and was a documentary filmmaker, podcaster, and freelance writer before finding her home with NPR. Very soon after joining MPRN, Cheyna started covering the 2016 presidential election, chasing after Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and all their surrogates as they duked it out for Michigan. Cheyna also focuses on the Legislature and criminal justice issues for MPRN. Cheyna is obsessively curious, a passionate storyteller, and an occasional backpacker. Follow her on Twitter at @Cheyna_R
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