Groups plan to drop Capitol closure suit

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and a coalition of labor unions plan to drop a lawsuit over the temporary closure of the state Capitol in December 2012 while the Legislature took initial votes on Michigan’s right-to-work law.

The plaintiffs have decided not to appeal Court of Claims Judge Deborah Servitto’s recent ruling that there was nothing illegal about the Michigan State Police’s decision to lock the doors to the Capitol during debate on the controversial bills, said Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Michigan.

Servitto also ruled that the Legislature did not violate the Open Meetings Act when 36 Republican legislative aides were directed to sit in the 175-seat House gallery during debate on the bills, taking away potential seats from members of the public.

“Not all members of the public who wanted to have direct, in-person observation of the legislative proceedings were able to,” Servitto wrote in a Feb. 7 ruling. “But just as a road is open to public travel even though its capacity is finite, a meeting may be open to the public even where physical access to all members of the public is not available. Moreover, the ability to see and observe the proceedings directly is not necessarily required.”

The Michigan Education Association teachers union, the Michigan Building & Construction Trades Council, the Michigan State AFL-CIO and current and former Democratic lawmakers had sued over the hours-long closing of the Capitol on Dec. 6, 2012.

The lawsuit sought to get the public-sector and private-sector right-to-work laws overturned on the grounds that the Legislature violated the Open Meetings Act while advancing the bills to final readings the following week. The new laws ended up making the payment of union dues optional.

MEA President Steve Cook, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the chances of getting a higher court to overturn Servitto’s decision are low.

“It was a disappointing decision,” said Cook, who was among hundreds of protesters who stood outside in frigid weather while the Capitol was closed.

State Police officials have repeatedly said they blocked further access to the building for more than four hours because of fire code capacity and safety concerns. The decision came after state troopers pepper-sprayed and arrested eight people who tried to bypass security guards and gain access to the Senate floor.

An Ingham County Circuit Court later ordered the Capitol reopened during the first of two chaotic days at the Capitol over the Republican-controlled Legislature’s swift passage of the right-to-work laws.

“The temporary cessation of admission to the Capitol building did not impair the rights of the public as a whole,” Servitto wrote in her 16-page opinion. “The public and the media were present in spite of the closure and were able to observe directly and through media coverage.”

Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Michigan, said testimony and depositions in the lawsuit helped “shed light” on efforts to block members of the public from viewing the legislative process.

“We proved there was a coordinated effort to keep members of the public out of the Capitol long after there was any sense of a public safety or overcrowding issue in the building,” Korobkin said. “Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, it was a sad day for open government.”

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