Michigan judge removes himself from Flint lawsuit case

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

A Michigan judge who inserted himself into a pending civil lawsuit against the state of Michigan over lead contamination in Flint has now removed himself from the case after plaintiffs’ attorneys complained.

Judge Michael J. Talbot, chief of the Michigan Court of Claims as well as the Michigan Court of Appeals, took over the civil case soon after it was filed Jan. 21. It had originally been assigned to Judge Mark Boonstra through the blind draw process.

The Court of Claims handles citizen lawsuits against the state with potential damage values of over $1,000. In the action filed last month, Flint residents are suing Gov. Rick Snyder, Michigan’s departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services, and two former Flint emergency managers for decisions that led to the city’s drinking water contamination problems.

Attorneys representing the residents quickly challenged the change in oversight as having “the appearance of impropriety” since it seemed to ignore the blind-draw process. On Tuesday, Talbot issued an Order of Reassignment putting the case back in the hands of Boonstra.

“Out of concern based on media reports and other filings with this Court that a large volume of claims might be filed from the occurrence underlying this matter, the Court peremptorily reassigned the case as an exercise in case management,” Talbot wrote. “To date, the concern of multiple filings has not materialized and the Court is persuaded that the specialized case management steps taken initially are not warranted.”

On Tuesday, Michigan Supreme Court spokesman John Nevin said Talbot’s latest move is part of the court’s efforts to ensure the case is handled with consistency.

“This is all about running a full-scale trial court within the Court of Appeals and making sure that administration of justice is efficient, consistent and timely in both courts,” Nevin said.

Attorneys of the Flint plaintiffs welcomed the judge’s reversal.

“We’re very pleased that the blind-draw process is being adhered to,” said Michael Pitt, one of the lawyers. “At the end of the day, it’s a good rule and a rule that should be followed scrupulously.”

Last week, the chief clerk for Michigan’s Court of Appeals said the assignment of the case to Talbot was not controversial.

“To me, that was not a reassignment,” Jerome Zimmer Jr. told The Detroit News. “We used Local Order 2015-2 for management purposes with regard to that case. Beyond that, I don’t have any comment.”

Local Administrative Order 2015-2 was enacted less than two months ago and allows the Court of Claims to bypass the blind-draw process in four scenarios. One of them lets the chief judge “address assignment of cases involving special issues or circumstances to promote efficiency in case management. This includes, but is not limited to, directing the clerk to assign multiple cases involving the same or similar parties, or the same or similar claims, to one or more judges.”

The other three scenarios that allow bypassing the blind draw are:

■If multiple actions are based on the same issue, the same judge will hear all of the cases.

■If a previously dismissed action comes back before the court, the original judge will hear it.

■If there are issues with “the frequency of random-draw assignments to the Chief Judge.”

The Court of Claims had a controversial evolution. In late 2013, the Republican-controlled Legislature moved it out from under Ingham County’s liberal circuit court and placed it under the Michigan Court of Appeals, which is overseen by the GOP-dominated Michigan Supreme Court. Two of the of claims court’s four judges have been appointed by a Democratic governor and two judges by a GOP governor.

In signing the legislation reorganizing the court, Snyder said the changes would provide better statewide representation of the judges hearing Court of Claims cases.

In December 2014, Talbot delivered an unexpected victory to Snyder’s administration when he ruled Michigan did not have to refund more than $1 billion in tax breaks to out-of-state companies. A Michigan Chamber of Commerce official described the decision as “utterly disappointing and stunning.”


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