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Michigan justices toss charges against ex-governor, others over Flint water crisis

The court found a state judge acting as a one-man grand jury had the authority to investigate and issue warrants, but not to hand down indictments.

LANSING, Mich. (CN) — The long-winding criminal cases against former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and members of his administration related to the Flint water contamination crisis were dealt a significant blow Tuesday morning when the Michigan Supreme Court ruled a judge did not have the authority to issue indictments against them.

“While [Michigan laws] authorize the use of a one-man grand jury to investigate, subpoena witnesses and issue arrest warrants, those statues do not authorize that one-man grand jury to issue an indictment initiating a criminal prosecution,” the unanimous ruling states.

The opinion criticized the actions taken by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, who removed a special prosecutor and assembled a legal team to seek charges against former state officials including Snyder, a Republican. That team relied on a one-judge grand jury in Genesee County to hear evidence.

“For some reason, they were not charged the way almost everyone in Michigan is charged—with a criminal complaint issued by a prosecutor," wrote Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack. "Instead, the prosecution chose to proceed with these cases using…the one-man grand jury [who] considered the evidence not in a public courtroom but in secret…to this day, defendants do not know what evidence the prosecution presented to convince the grand jury."

The ruling comes in the cases against former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, Snyder's former assistant Rich Baird and state health department manager Nancy Peeler, but it also applies to Snyder and others charged in the Flint water crisis because the court found the all the indictments invalid.

The cases have been remanded back to Genesee County Circuit Court for dismissal.

“The way the office went about bringing these charges shows that the charges were illegitimate from the start,” Lyon’s attorney John Bursch told The Detroit News.

In a separate concurring opinion, Justice Richard Bernstein addressed potential disappointment with the decision from the citizens of Flint but was adamant that the case must be processed in the correct way.

“Today, this court recognizes what we have always known to be true: Procedure matters,” he wrote.

He added: “At the same time, this court remains cognizant of the impact that this decision might have on the residents of Flint, who have suffered an unconscionable injustice…if the allegations can be proved, it is impossible to fully state the magnitude of the damage state actors have caused to an innocent group of people.”

Bernstein concluded the prosecution should strictly adhere to proper guidelines because of the high level of harm done to Flint residents and to demonstrate to all Michigan citizens that state courts operate in a fair manner and can produce impartial rulings.

Justice Elizabeth T. Clement did not participate in the case since she was formerly chief legal counsel for Snyder.

Snyder’s legal team issued a statement Tuesday that praised the ruling and promised a quick end to the case.

“We will be moving immediately to dismiss all criminal charges against Governor Snyder based on today's unequivocal and scathing Supreme Court ruling,” they said.

The statement also accused Nessel of chasing publicity with the charges.

“As the Michigan Supreme Court makes clear, these prosecutions of Governor Snyder and the other defendants were never about seeking justice for the citizens of Flint.  Rather, Attorney General Nessel and her political appointee Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud staged a self-interested, vindictive, wasteful, and politically motivated prosecution,” Snyder's team said. “The people of Michigan will recall how Solicitor General Hammoud took to the stage at every opportunity to grandstand, but they now see the truth from Michigan’s highest court of law.”

Lyon released a statement that thanked his family and supporters but reserved some anger for his political enemies.   

“State employees should not be prosecuted or demonized for just doing their job. It is a great injustice to allow politicians—acting in their own interests—to sacrifice government servants who are performing their roles in good faith under difficult circumstances,” he said.

Snyder’s team was last in court in April when defense lawyer Gaetan Gerville-Reache of Warner Norcross & Judd insisted that state law requires criminal charges to be filed where the alleged crime actually occurred. In this case, not in Genesee County – home of Flint – but in Lansing, Michigan.

A motion to dismiss the case against Snyder was denied by Genesee County District Judge William Crawford last year. It was debated for weeks as Crawford was initially not certain of his authority in the sprawling scandal.

In January 2021, Snyder first appeared in court to plead not guilty to the charges. 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.

Flint switched back to the Detroit water system in October 2015.

In his 2016 State of the State speech, Snyder apologized with a quivering voice for the moves that led to the crisis. The action 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.

Flint residents complained of strange-tasting, cloudy water but city and state leaders insisted the supply was safe. Months later, researchers began publicizing high lead levels in the blood of Flint children.

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