Lansing — The Michigan Senate approved a fast-moving bill Wednesday that would move Michigan’s Court of Claims from Ingham County’s liberal circuit court judges to the more-conservative Michigan Court of Appeals.
The 26-11 vote, along partisan lines, sends to the House a measure introduced Oct. 24 by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Rick Jones and was passed by his committee Tuesday prior to Wednesday’s Senate vote.
A court of claims is where residents can bring certain types of lawsuits, valued at more than $1,000, against the state or its political subdivisions, such as a county.
“This bill is nothing more than partisan rigging and shameless political protectionism,” said Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing. “It’s a clear attempt to tamper with the power of the courts.”
Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said his bill, which would allow cases to be filed in four locations around the state, “allows the people of Michigan more access.”
If politics are involved, “they were played in the ’70s” when the claims court was “moved to just Ingham County with judges elected by perhaps 3 percent of the population,” Jones said.
Most Ingham County Circuit judges have ties to the Democratic Party or organized labor. Ingham County’s Circuit courtrooms are in Lansing, home of the State Capitol, and Mason.
Ingham’s courts have handled several high-profile cases in the past year or so. They’re where labor unions and other opponents opened challenges to the emergency manager and right-to-work laws, as well as the selection of Kevyn Orr as Detroit’s emergency manager.
The bill’s opponents include Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina.
At Jones’ committee hearing, a former longtime legislative staffer specializing in the judiciary said the Claims Court was moved to Ingham County in 1978 to save money and make sure there were judges available.
Before then, the State Court Administrative Office assigned cases to circuit judges around the state, said the former staffer, Bruce Timmons.
With increasing caseloads, however, judges had become reluctant to take on Claims Court cases, too, Timmons said.
The Appeals Court now has excess capacity and can absorb the Court of Claims caseload without adding judgeships, according to the Senate Fiscal Agency.
Ingham County may have to eliminate a judgeship, reduce staff and will lose about $500,000 a year in state reimbursement, the fiscal agency said.
Under the bill approved by the Senate, the state Court of Appeals, which has a filing fee of $375, would charge the same $150 filing fee as Ingham’s circuit court for Court of Claims cases.