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Judge’s lawsuit heads back to Mich. Court of Claims

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

The Court of Appeals has ordered an age-discrimination lawsuit filed by a Michigan judge back to the Michigan Court of Claims for consideration.

A three-judge panel issued an opinion Thursday that said the Court of Claims is the correct jurisdiction to hear and decide a lawsuit brought by Court of Appeals Judge Peter O’Connell, who is suing state election officials to bypass term limit rules based on age.

O’Connell will be 70 when his six-year term is up in 2019, making him ineligible to run for re-election in the 4th District in the northern half of the Lower Peninsula.

Under the Michigan Constitution, judges cannot seek re-election once they turn 70. The restriction was added in 1955.

Instead of being aged out, O’Connell wants to give up his nonpartisan seat — three years ahead of schedule — and run in August for an open seat in his district that belongs to Judge Michael Gadola, who was appointed to the seat in 2015.

On March 10, Michigan Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, who is also a state Court of Appeals judge, dismissed O’Connell’s lawsuit without addressing or deciding on any of its claims, saying O’Connell should file the matter in the state circuit court system, not in the Court of Claims.

In a 10-page opinion issued by judges David Sawyer, Joel Hoekstra and Kurtis Wilder, the judges said the Court of Claims erred when it concluded it did not have subject matter jurisdiction to hear and decide the lawsuit.

The panel agreed with O’Connell, who said in his appeal that state law gives the Court of Claims jurisdiction over actions against state officials and departments.

Reached by phone on Friday, O’Connell said he was pleased he won his case in the appeal and said the opinion was well-written. But he is frustrated by the lengthy legal process that has drawn his lawsuit out over a two-year period with no resolution.

“I started with the governor’s legal counsel working on this issue in 2014. The Secretary of State and director of elections in 2015, then the Court of Claims, the Court of Appeals and even the Michigan Supreme Court. Nobody is willing to make a decision on the merits of this case,” O’Connell said.

After he was rejected as an incumbent candidate in February by state election officials, O’Connell filed a lawsuit in the Michigan Court of Claims against the state’s director of elections, the Bureau of Elections and the Michigan Department of State to force them to put his name on the August primary ballot.

Attorneys for the state allege O’Connell is trying to get around the age restriction by running for a seat that is not his and, if allowed to do so, would create a vacancy on the bench should he win in the November election.

State officials told O’Connell he could appear on the ballot, but he’d have to collect the necessary signatures and wouldn’t appear as an incumbent.

There are about 590 judges in Michigan, according to the Michigan Supreme Court office. Thirty-two judges were ineligible to run in 2014 because of the age limit.

JChambers@detroitnews.com