Michigan Law Doesn’t Tread on Voter Rights

     (CN) — The Sixth Circuit upheld Monday the constitutionality of Michigan’s emergency-manager law that allows the governor to put unelected officials in charge of poor, usually black neighborhoods, and which some blame for creating Flint’s lead-water crisis.
     Commonly known as the emergency-manager law, Michigan’s P.A. 436 allows Gov. Rick Snyder to suspend all elected officials in financially distressed municipalities and transfer their power to an appointee of his choosing.
     Detroit public schools have had a string of emergency managers dating back to 2009, but are still on the brink of insolvency while serious academic deficiencies remain.
     And the city of Flint is still grappling with its emergency manager’s 2014 decision to switch its water supply to the corrosive Flint River, exposing the entire city to toxic levels of lead.
     Detroit union official Catherine Phillips led a federal complaint over the issue in March 2013, but Detroit’s bankruptcy later that year put a freeze on all pending civil actions against Michigan state officials.
     After finally reopening the Phillips case in 2014, U.S. District Judge George Steeh decided to advance only the claim that P.A. 436 racially discriminates in violation of the equal-protection clause. Detroit, Flint and other cities placed under emergency management are heavily majority African-American.
     To have the Sixth Circuit decide whether Steeh’s order was proper, Phillips and the other plaintiffs stipulated to the dismissal of their racial discrimination claim and appealed to the Sixth Circuit.
     They contend that the emergency-manager law fundamentally tramples citizens’ rights under the Voting Rights Act such that when voters in Michigan’s poorest cities go to the polls on Election Day, the emergency-manager law has the net effect of ensuring that the candidates they choose “have no authority to govern,” according to the plaintiffs’ brief.
     The Sixth Circuit ruled against them, however, and upheld the emergency-manager law on Monday.
     “Improving the financial situation of a distressed locality undoubtedly is a legitimate legislative purpose, and PA 436, while perhaps not the perfect remedy, is one that is rationally related to that purpose,” Judge John Rogers said, writing for the three-judge panel. “The emergency manager’s powers may be vast, but so are the problems in financially distressed localities, and the elected officials of those localities are most often the ones who — through the exercise of their powers — led the localities into their difficult situations.”
     Because the law bears a rational relationship to a legitimate governmental purpose, it does not violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, the panel ruled.
     Nor does it impair plaintiffs’ right to vote, the 18-page opinion states.
     “Plaintiffs are still provided a vote. PA 436 does not remove local elected officials; it simply vests the powers of the local government in an emergency manager,” Rogers said.
     The Cincinnati-based appeals panel quoted the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1982 opinion in Rodriguez v. Popular Democratic Party, where it reasoned that “the right to vote, per se, is not a constitutionally protected right.” The Constitution does not “compel a fixed method of choosing state or local officers or representatives,” the high court found.
     The Sixth Circuit also rejected the claim that the emergency-manager law discriminates based on wealth.
     “Although solvency may correlate with the wealth of a locality’s residents, solvency and wealth are separate concepts,” Rogers said. “Indeed, it is possible for a locality with wealthy residents to become insolvent and subject to PA 436.”
     Plaintiffs’ attorney Herb Sanders told the Detroit Free Press he is “extremely disappointed” with the ruling.
     “I think it’s a very important issue that has national implications,” Sanders said.

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