Shirkey: GOP won’t rule out Nessel impeachment

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake,  is sworn in by Chief Justice Stephen Markman.

Lansing — Michigan’s Republican-led Senate appears to be putting the squeeze on Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel and is not ruling out the possibility of pursuing impeachment if she refuses to enforce state laws to which she objects.

A 2020 budget unveiled this week by the Senate GOP proposes a 10% “administrative reduction” for Nessel’s office and other language attempting to limit her discretion in lawsuits.

It also proposes funding cuts for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson’s office to pay for the creation of a new independent redistricting commission voters approved last fall.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said in a Thursday morning radio interview that the upper chamber is working to apply “legislative pressure” on Nessel through the budget process.

The Plymouth Democrat has riled Republicans since taking office in January by settling a same-sex adoption lawsuit over a GOP law, issuing a legal opinion invalidating a Line 5 tunnel authority, creating a new hate crimes unit and vowing to ignore a state abortion ban if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

“I believe my attorney general is going to continue to paint a picture of who she really is and who she represents and what her true agenda is,” Shirkey said in a 910AM Superstation interview with Detroit News Editorial Page Editor Nolan Finley. “And I think it will become abundantly clear to Michigan and to voters.”

The Senate budget plan advanced Wednesday includes a nearly $4.2 million administrative cut for the Department of Attorney General, whose overall budget would shrink $1.7 million after an increase in funding for legacy employee retirement costs.

Attorney General Dana Nessel

The plan includes language seeking to require the attorney general to enforce state law and prohibiting her from entering into a lawsuit “contrary” to state law. Additional language would require the department to notify budget chairs and fiscal agencies of any lawsuit settlements that cost $5 million or more.

Asked how the Senate would respond if Nessel refused to enforce an existing Michigan law she opposes, Shirkey noted that “Michigan’s Constitution provides for the opportunity to impeach an elected officer like attorney general.”

“The standard is very high, and so it would not be easy to do, but it’s certainly not something we’re unwilling to explore,” Shirkey said.

Under the Michigan Constitution, any impeachment proceedings must begin in the House. If approved in the lower chamber, the impeachment would be tried by the Senate after final adjournment of a two-year session.

A favorite of the progressive left, Nessel has quickly and aggressively reversed many of the legal actions and opinions of her predecessor, Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette. She has withdrawn from several conservative lawsuits he had joined while signing on to others by Democratic attorneys general challenging actions by GOP President Donald Trump’s administration.

Her spokeswoman offered a measured response to the Senate budget plan but declined comment on Shirkey's impeachment reference.

“We respect the budget process and recognize that this is the first step in a long dance,” Kelly Rossman-McKinney said in an email. “We look forward to continuing our conversations with the members of the Legislature as we move forward.”

Benson was more vocal in opposing the Senate budget, which proposes cutting funding to the Secretary of State's office to offset costs of a new independent redistricting commission voters approved in November.

The Senate budget includes $4.6 million to create a redistricting commission but proposes $4.6 million in cuts to Department of State executive operations, property management, legal services, branch operations and election regulations.

“Senate Republicans are violating the intent of the constitutional amendment,” Benson said in a statement. The amendment directs the state to fund the commission, not “take 25 percent away from current operations of the Secretary of State.”

“This misunderstanding jeopardizes customer service at the branch offices and election security. I urge the full Senate to reject this approach, and I look forward to working with the Legislature to improve service to Michigan residents.”

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson holds a press conference Thursday at Cadillac Place in Detroit, to announce plans to improve wait times and services at SOS branches across the state.

A Shirkey spokeswoman disputed that characterization, saying the proposed budget for the Department of State reflects a broader effort to “free up general fund dollars” for other purposes.

“It’s early in the budget process, and I think we’ll see different iterations of how it ends up as a final product,” Amber McCann said.

McCann also said the proposed reduction for the Attorney General’s Office is “not a punitive choice” by Senate Republicans.

“The Attorney General’s Office received a small reduction compared to current year funding, as did many areas of the budget to free up General Fund dollars to put toward other priorities, such as accelerating road funding,” she said.

But Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said the budget moves are clear forms of retaliation.

Democrats elected to statewide office after eight years of total Republican control in Lansing are “using the powers that they have under the Constitution, and a lot of the things that they’re doing the majority doesn’t like,” Ananich said.

“Making a 10% cut with no real explanation for it appears to be sending a message. We’ll work to see if we can get that funding put back in.”

The Senate budget proposes speeding up a 2015 road funding law by completing implementation a year early, which would mean an additional $132 million next year. Republicans oppose Whitmer’s plan to raise fuel taxes 171% or 45 cents per gallon.

The proposed cut for Nessel’s office comes two days after Nessel testified before the Senate Oversight Committee, where she was grilled over her plans to create a hate crimes unit that would specialize in prosecuting violations of current law prohibiting attacks or threats based on race, color, religion, gender or national origin.

The Ann Arbor-based American Freedom Law Center recently sued Nessel and Michigan Department of Civil Rights Director Agustin Arbulu, arguing the state is unjustly targeting the group for its conservative political views.

But Nessel assured lawmakers that the unit will focus on prosecuting legitimate crimes, “not policing thoughts and words.” Her offices is not working with the Southern Poverty Law Center to target hate groups or developing a database to document hate incidents, she said.

“While some people in this state may choose to exercise their right to free speech by thinking hateful thoughts, saying hateful words or associating with hate-filled people, as attorney general it is my job to protect that right, not to prosecute it, even if I vehemently disagree with those thoughts, words or associations."

Speaking last week at a Planned Parenthood conference in Lansing, Nessel vowed she would not enforce an existing state law banning abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court reverses a landmark 1973 decision that created abortion choice as a constitutional right for women.

She alleged that Schuette ignored environmental regulations during his tenure, and if he can do that, “well then, I think I can go four or maybe eight years without sending women to be butchered in back alleys,” she said.

In her campaign last year, Nessel suggested she may not enforce a 2015 GOP law allowing faith-based adoption and foster care agencies to decline to work with same-sex parents.

She settled a federal lawsuit over the policy last month with an agreement that will require the state to end contracts with organizations that discriminate against same-sex couples, which she said was “illegal, no matter the rationale.”

At the time, Shirkey said he was “deeply saddened and outraged by the blatant political action” by the attorney general.