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Court of Claims Switch Might Affect State Employee Lawsuit

Court of Claims Switch Might Affect State Employee Lawsuit

The Michigan Court of Claims was established in the State Constitution to hear cases against the State of Michigan.  Lawsuits seeking monetary compensation are referred to the Court of Claims, which processes them.  For example, recent lawsuits filed by organizations representing state employees regarding laws affecting health care and pension costs for state workers first went to the Michigan Court of Claims.

Students of judicial history may remember that, in the late 1970’s, the Legislature transferred all Court of Claims litigation to the Ingham County Circuit Court.  The rationale then was that it was a central location and would save the state money by alleviating the need to defend cases all over the state.  It was also seen as a neutral court that would provide a fair hearing for both sides.

Recently, the Court of Claims has ruled favorably on a number of lawsuits against the state.  Most notably for MAGE members, the Court of Claims found the law requiring state workers to pay an additional 4% of their salary toward their pension or else be switched into a Defined Contribution plan to be unconstitutional.  

Recent legislative action may cause a huge wrinkle in that lawsuit and hundreds of others pending against the state.

In early November, the Michigan Legislature completed a whirlwind process that completely reshaped the Michigan Court of Claims.  SB 652 (Sen. Rick Jones, R-Eaton Rapids) was introduced on October 24 and signed into law as PA 164 on November 13, less than a month after introduction. With unprecedented speed, this legislation was introduced and rammed through the Senate and House that abolished the current Court of Claims housed in the Ingham County Circuit Court and replaced it with four handpicked judges chosen from the Michigan Court of Appeals.  While proponents of this massive change claimed that they did it to allow more voters to have a say in who sits on the Court of Claims (as opposed to having them all elected by Ingham county residents), shifting all power over the Court of Claims to the Supreme Court was a highly controversial method of dealing with that “problem.” 

Many observers feel that this legislation had a lot more to do with the recent rulings coming from the Ingham County judges than with the makeup of the electorate.  The fact that the bill (Senate Bill 652) was pushed through in less than two weeks (an almost unheard of timeframe for legislative action) indicates that this was more about reshaping the decision-making power of the Court of Claims than good government. 

Perhaps in an effort to mitigate the perception that this was nothing more than a partisan power grab, the Republican-controlled Michigan Supreme Court chose a bipartisan panel from the Court of Appeals to serve as the new Court of Claims.  Of the four selected judges, two were appointed by Governor Granholm (Judges Amy Ronayne Krause and Deborah Servitto) and two were appointed by Governor Engler (Judges Michael Talbot and Pat Donofrio).

The bill was pushed through so fast, in fact, that a number of provisions within may very well violate the Michigan Constitution.  For example, there is no provision within the bill to allow for a jury trial in the Court of Claims – something guaranteed in the Michigan Constitution.  The bill as passed would also reassign all pending cases (including the ones on behalf of state workers regarding pension and health care costs) to the new Court of Claims.  While this may not be unconstitutional on its face, it is certainly burdensome and will create untold problems for the court system.

Governor Snyder and Republican leaders are apparently concerned enough about the problems within the new law that a “trailer bill” has already been introduced to “clean it up.”  Rep. Mike Shirkey (R-Clark Lake) has introduced House Bill 5156 that would clarify the right to a jury trial.  However, the bill as introduced does nothing to correct the issue of existing cases being transferred to the new court. 

In the end, this sudden shift in how the Court of Claims operates continues a troubling trend of power politics for the current administration.  First, the Republican-controlled Legislature changed redistricting rules for a single county (Oakland) to favor the GOP after – for the first time – Democrats won enough county-wide positions there to control the redistricting process.  Then the Legislature re-enacted the Emergency Financial Manager law just weeks after the original law was overturned by a statewide election.  Time will tell how much further the state legislature will go before the end of the 2013-2014 session.

Prison Food Services Switch to Private Contracting with Aramark

Sen. Bruce Caswell (R-Hillsdale)
Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba)
Rep. Kevin Daley (R-Lum)
Rep. Scott Dianda (D-Calumet)
Rep. Fred Durhal Jr. (D-Detroit)
Sen. Judy Emmons (R-Sheridan)
Rep. Frank Foster (R-Petosky)
Rep. Marcia Hovey-Wright (D-Muskegon)
Rep. Andrew Kandrevas (D-Southgate)
Rep. John Kivela (D-Marquette)
Rep. Colleen Lamonte (D-Montague)
Rep. Matt Lori (R- Constantine)
Rep. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan)
Rep. Rick Outman (R-Six Lakes)
Rep. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City)
Rep. Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake)
Rep. Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor)

If one of these is your legislator, please give him or her a call or email to say “Thank you!” for signing this letter urging another look at the Aramark contract for Department of Corrections food services.

After 24 hours of extensive testimony from members across the correctional services industry on September 18, Gov. Snyder took the privatization of the prison food industry into his own hands. The Governor not only decided to negotiate the contract, but also get it approved, signed and implemented before December 1, 2013. The expedited process was allowed because Janet McClelland, the Chief Deputy Director of Michigan’s Civil Service Commission, and to whom the letter is addressed, declined to stay a decision of the Civil Service Staff, which was based on a precedent established by less-than-majority vote of the commission. The letter urges Ms. McClelland to reconsider her position and stay any further action that involves implementing the Aramark contract in order to allow a full review provided by Civil Service rule and the State Constitution.

By:  Todd Tennis and Ellen Hoekstra
Capitol Services, Inc.
November 19, 2013