Lawmaker: PPO violates free speech, separation of powers, legislative privilege

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A Harrison Township lawmaker accused of sending threatening texts to another legislator has asked a judge to dismiss a personal protection order, arguing his statements were protected by freedom of speech, legislative privilege and separation of powers.

Ingham County Circuit Judge Lisa McCormick is expected to hold a hearing on Rep. Steve Marino's request to dismiss the PPO this week, about two and a half months after Rep. Mari Manoogian, D-Birmingham, was granted the order. 

Marino, 32, who had a prior romantic relationship with Manoogian, 29, that ended in 2019, has not been to session since the PPO was issued in mid-September. Though the order bars him from being in the same room with Manoogian, Republican House leadership and Manoogian agreed to an arrangement that allowed Marino to attend with a security escort. 

State Rep. Steve Marino, R-Harrison Township, was removed from his committee assignments after state Rep. Mari Manoogian, D-Birmingham, accused him of sending threatening text messages.

House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, had removed Marino from his committee assignments after Manoogian showed him texts Marino had sent her. 

In the texts, Marino said he would make it his "life mission to destroy" Manoogian, said he hoped Manoogian's "car explodes on the way in" and warned her to "hide on the House floor." The texts also discussed business related to the House Commerce and Tourism Committee, on which they both served, according to records. 

Michigan State Police investigated the texts — including about 300 additional pages supplied by Marino's lawyer — and forwarded their report to Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon, whose office declined criminal charges in late October. 

Marino's lawyer, Mike Rataj, has maintained the texts were taken out of context and argued in his filing requesting the dismissal of the PPO that Marino's statements were "far removed from any potential violence" and were protected by his rights to freedom of speech and expression. 

The texts were "certainly discourteous on both their parts" over the years, the motion said, but didn't meet the standard needed to show the commissioning "of an unlawful act of violence."

"Calling someone names, however crude, does not translate into imminent lawless action, and Mr. Marino's intent was not to induce anybody, including himself, to violate the law," the motion said. 

Rataj also invoked Michigan's constitutional protection of lawmakers' speech during legislative session, committee hearings or work groups — a legislative privilege known as the "speech or debate clause" in the state and federal constitutions. Because Manoogian and Marino at times discussed House and committee issues in their texts, those communications should be protected from "civil arrest and civil process," the motion said.

"These communications are protected by the legislative privilege and cannot be used to entwine Mr. Marino in a civil action where he is required to defend himself," the motion said. 

Lastly, Rataj argued that the state's separation of powers prevents the judicial branch from restricting actions in the legislative branch. 

"While Mr. Marino has no interest in communicating with the petitioner, this court does not have authority to restrict the work-related communications of a legislator and infringe on the Legislature," the motion said.

Rataj also submitted to the court copies of polygraph tests administered to Marino by three different companies over a two-week period in October in which the lawmaker said he never forced Manoogian into hugs. 

Manoogian told McCormick in September, while requesting the PPO, that Marino had hugged her against her will despite knowing she didn't like hugs. 

Polygraphs are not generally admissible in Michigan in criminal proceedings, but can be used during other aspects of an investigation and in some court hearings.