FLINT, Mich. (CN) — Lawyers representing former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder were back in court Tuesday morning seeking to dismiss an indictment against him for his role in the water crisis that poisoned Flint residents, but the judge said he needed more time to sort out jurisdiction issues.
Genesee County District Court Judge William Crawford was open about his lack of experience in this type of case.
“One-person grand jury, multi-county grand jury…Don’t remember that in law school,” he said, referring to the fact that another judge served as a secret one-person grand jury in handing down indictments against nine defendants.
Crawford said he needed two weeks before he could hear oral arguments on Snyder’s motion to dismiss because he did not have a law clerk like federal judges do to help him digest the filings.
“When you are in the district court, there’s just me,” he said.
Crawford also took a moment to ask the parties if he was the appropriate judge to decide the motion to dismiss. He noted there was already a motion for him to recuse himself since he was a citizen of Flint and a potential claimant for settlement funds.
He also questioned whether Flint residents would be able to act as jurors if the case went to trial and wondered if the Michigan Court of Appeals or the state’s 7th Judicial Circuit Court might be a better fit.
However, if the case continued in his court, Crawford said he was up for the challenge of presiding over the trial.
“I can do it fairly,” he said.
He scheduled a status conference for next Tuesday to decide.
Snyder’s lawyer Brian Lennon of Warner Norcross + Judd on Monday filed a motion to dismiss the two counts of willful neglect of duty. It said that "neglecting a city is not a crime — certainly not one with which Governor Snyder has been charged.” The motion also said the Republican former governor did not have any duties “owed specifically to Flint.”
Lennon previously said in court that the indictment is also “fatally flawed” because state prosecutors “charged in the wrong venue,” since Snyder was not based in Flint during the contaminated-water crisis that began in 2014. The state Capitol is located about an hour west in Lansing.
In a statement to the Detroit Metro Times, Lennon expressed frustration with the process.
“It is clear the prosecution is desperate to keep this case in Genesee County. The state is now asking the court to perform legal and logical gymnastics to cover for their fatal flaw of obtaining their charges in the wrong county,” he said Monday.
He added, “Rather than own up to their error and refile these two misdemeanors in Ingham County, they are doubling down by twisting facts, distorting case holdings, and ignoring Michigan Supreme Court precedent and longstanding grand jury practice.”
But prosecutors were resolute in a brief filed last week.
“The indictments are sound…It is incoherent to suggest that breaching a duty owed to the people of a particular city does not entail a sufficient connection to that city to establish venue there,” the filing said.
Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley, a Democrat, said Snyder’s defense that neglecting a city is not a crime “is infuriating.”
“This criminal defense goes beyond implicit bias,” he said in a statement Monday. “Moreover, it is explicit bias when communities of color are neglected and they argue it is not a crime. What happened to the children, families, and residents of Flint was absolutely criminal. We as a community deserve justice, not more insulting attempts to defend their actions."
Last month, Snyder appeared in Genesee County court to plead not guilty to the charges stemming from the contaminated-water crisis that began during his time in office. Crawford ordered the former governor not to leave the state without permission and set a personal recognizance bond at $10,000 for each of the two counts.
The Flint water crisis began in April 2014 when a state-appointed emergency manager switched the city’s drinking water supply from Lake Huron water treated in Detroit to Flint River water treated at the Flint Water Treatment Plant. Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials admitted they failed to require corrosion-control chemicals as part of the water treatment process.
Flint switched back to the Detroit water system in October 2015.
U.S. District Judge Judith Levy, a Barack Obama appointee, reviewed the deal and was urged by top lawyers to sign off on the agreement during a hearing last month. She said it was the “most complex settlement I’ve ever seen” before approving the deal in late January.
“Generally, a settlement between an adult plaintiff and a defendant does not require court approval. But because this settlement presents a hybrid structure that includes a class component for unrepresented adults—and involves a substantial number of potential claims of minors—preliminary approval of certain aspects of the proposed settlement is both appropriate and necessary,” Levy wrote in a Jan. 21 opinion.
She stressed it was a partial settlement and did not mark the end of future litigation.
“There may be no amount of money that would fully recognize the harm the residents of Flint have experienced, including their anxiety, fear, distrust, and anger over the events of last seven years,” the judge wrote. “Litigation has its benefits, but also its limitations, and the preliminary approval of this settlement does not affect or preclude other avenues of redress.”
In his 2016 State of the State speech, Snyder addressed the people of Michigan with a quivering voice while stumbling over his words at times as he apologized repeatedly for the moves that led to the crisis.
“I’m sorry, and I will fix it,” Snyder said at the time. “Government failed you – federal, state and local leaders – by breaking the trust you placed in us.”
Emails were later released that showed state officials knew nearly a year prior about the link between the contamination and a spike in Legionnaires’ disease. While the former governor publicly confirmed the link in January 2016, an aide reportedly received an email about the connection in March 2015.
“The increase of the illness closely corresponds with the timeframe of the switch to the Flint River water,” Genesee County’s environmental health supervisor wrote in the email. “I want to make sure in writing that there are no misunderstandings regarding this significant and urgent public health issue.”
The move to switch water supplies was a cost-cutting one, taking filtration responsibilities from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department and reassigning it to a city plant.
The water was not treated properly, however, and lead pipes infected the supply. Flint residents quickly complained of strange-tasting, cloudy water, but city and state leaders continued insisting that the supply was safe. Months later, researchers began publicizing high lead levels in the blood of Flint children.
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