Monica Conyers battles in federal court to get on August primary ballot

Kayla Ruble
The Detroit News

Detroit — Former Detroit City Council President Monica Conyers and her legal representative fought in federal court Thursday to get her name on the Aug. 2 Democratic primary ballot even though a state law bans her participation.

Conyers sued Wayne County Clerk Cynthia Garrett for blocking her from the ballot in the Wayne County executive primary where she hoped to contest incumbent Warren Evans. She and her lawyer have argued in court documents that the state law doesn't apply to her in part because it was approved after she reached a plea deal in a federal corruption case.

Former Detroit City Council President Monica Conyers is pictured here in November 2019.

Thursday’s court appearance before Detroit Chief U.S. District Judge Sean Cox followed a weeks-long saga surrounding Conyers’ controversial efforts to run in the August primary, marking an attempted political comeback 13 years after she pleaded guilty in 2009 to one federal count of conspiracy to commit bribery. Conyers was sentenced to 37 months in federal prison for accepting money in exchange for her vote on a $1 billion sludge-hauling deal. 

The Wayne County Clerk’s office initially approved the Detroit politician’s candidacy, but later issued a determination saying she was ineligible for the ballot because of a Michigan law that bars public officials who committed certain crimes from being elected or appointed to another public office for 20 years. At the end of May, Conyers filed a lawsuit challenging the decision, along with the injunction request to get her name on the ballot while the case is being resolved.

In legal filings and in court on Thursday, Conyers’ lawyer Pamela Campbell argued that her client will experience irreparable injury if Cox doesn't issue a preliminary injunction or restraining order putting her on the primary ballot  because there would be no remedy if Conyers were to ultimately win the lawsuit and the ballots were already printed.

Attorneys for Garrett and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's office requested the judge deny the injunction request, saying the case does not meet the standards for such relief. 

In her lawsuit, Conyers argued that the 2010 Michigan law does not apply to her because it was enacted more than a year after she reached her plea agreement. She argued the amended state law violates the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits legislative bodies from enacting a law that imposes additional punishment than what was already prescribed. Conyers contended the law unconstitutionally increased the punishment already imposed on her by a judge, which didn't include any restrictions on seeking elected office. 

The lawsuit also argued the law is vindictive and punitive because it was specifically targeted former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and city officials like Conyers after they had already been convicted.

In court, Cox’s line of questioning focused initially on an argument made by the attorney general's representative that the plaintiff is unlikely to succeed because the claims are not timely and that the plaintiff had acted with unreasonable delay. The state argued Conyers has known for years about the Michigan law and could have brought suit previously. The attorneys also noted she waited two weeks after Garrett’s decision before suing. 

Campbell said Conyers had not been aware of the state law since leaving prison and, when she did learn about its existence, did not believe it applied to her since it was enacted more than a year after her guilty plea. 

“She did not file suit until she was denied a spot on the ballot,” Campbell told Cox.  

About the delay in filing suit, Campbell said it had to do with a change in lawyers.  

“The week that I was retained was the week that I filed,” she said.  

Cox also asked Campbell whether Garrett should have acted against the advice of her corporation counsel to remove Conyers from the ballot. 

“What was Ms. Garrett supposed to do?” the judge said. “Are you telling me she should have acted against corporation counsel?”

“I don’t even believe that was the corporation counsel’s responsibility,” Campbell responded.

In further arguments against the injunction request, the attorney general’s office said Conyers is not likely to succeed on the merits of any of her claims. The state’s attorneys argued the state law would only be unconstitutional if the Legislature intended to impose a criminal penalty after the plea deal and the plaintiff would need “the clearest proof” to show that was the intent.

Assistant Attorney General Bryan Beach said the Legislature at the time intended to safeguard the public through a civil penalty of disallowing candidacies and that there was nothing punitive about the law because it applies to officials throughout the state, even if it was inspired by Detroit officials. 

“Their theory is based more or less on a conspiracy,” Beach said. 

Campbell countered by citing the extent to which it was widely understood that the law was pursued after Kilpatrick publicly vowed to “make a comeback.”

“You cannot do vindictive legislation,” Campbell said. 

Cox is expected to issue a written decision soon. Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office has said it needs answers about who is on the August primary ballot by Friday, which is when the state finalizes ballot lists for publishing.