Snyder to appeal teacher pay ruling without AG’s help

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder will appeal a court ruling directing the state reimburse public school employees for “unconstitutional” paycheck deductions, but Attorney General Bill Schuette will not represent him before the Michigan Supreme Court.

Spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said Tuesday that Schuette is declining to provide counsel” in the case after reviewing a June 7 ruling by the Michigan Court of appeals, which held that more than 200,000 school employees were unconstitutionally docked 3 percent of their pay from 2010 to 2012 for retirement health care benefits they were not guaranteed to receive.

Instead, the Department of Attorney General will appoint a special assistant attorney general, a move that would distance Schuette from the case if the state continues its multi-year fight to retain the collected payroll deductions.

Schuette’s announcement came less than two hours before the Snyder administration confirmed it would appeal the ruling in a 2010 lawsuit filed by a coalition of school employee unions, which had urged both Snyder and Schuette to drop the case and return $550 million that has been sitting in escrow while the court battle played out.

“These payments are necessary for the long-term financial stability of the retirement system teachers rely on for health care benefits after their years of hard work come to a close,” Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said in a statement. “Keeping the money in the system will help their investments continue to grow and benefit Michigan educators for decades to come.”

Heaton said the Snyder administration was not concerned by Schuette’s move to sit out the case and instead will appoint a special assistant attorney general.

“We are confident in finding an attorney outside of the AG’s office with the specific expertise needed to prevail on this matter,” she said in an email.

David Hecker, president of the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said Snyder’s court challenge is “an insult to the women and men who educate our children.”

Schuette’s move to sit out the appeal after a protracted legal battle “says a lot” about arguments that lower courts repeatedly rejected, Hecker said, calling it “really shameful that the governor did not see it the same way.”

Disagreement over the appeal is the latest sign of discord between the governor and attorney general, two of the state’s top Republican officials.

Snyder took his name off of Schuette’s latest court challenge to new mercury pollution control regulations by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and Schuette recently accused the governor’s private attorneys of withholding documents requested as part of an ongoing investigation into the Flint water contamination crisis.

Legal teams for Snyder and Schuette, along with the attorney general’s Flint investigative unit, met last week and agreed to “work through any document production issues,” according to a rare joint statement from both offices.

The Snyder administration had 42 days to appeal the June 7 ruling in the public school retirement health care benefits case.

Refunding the money could mean thousands of dollars each for school employees who were subjected to the deductions. Teachers and union leaders last month delivered what they said were more than 33,000 petitions asking the state to drop the case.

In a 2-1 decision handed down in early June, Appeals Court Judges Douglas B. Shapiro and Jane M. Beckering said “compulsory collection” of the paycheck reduction was unconstitutional and ordered the state to return the funds to employees, plus interest.

The court issued a similar ruling in 2012, but the Michigan Supreme Court instead chose to hear a case involving a 2012 replacement law, which it upheld. The high court has not heard a challenge to the 2010 law itself.

Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook suggested in a statement Snyder’s appeal can “only be interpreted as a continued attack on school employees and a continued waste of taxpayer dollars on a politically motivated appeal.”

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