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Civil right panel wants high court to hear EM law suit

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — A commission with Gov. Rick Snyder appointees is asking the state Department of Civil Rights to urge the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a challenge against the state’s emergency manager law that Snyder signed into law in 2012.

The state’s Civil Rights Commission voted Tuesday with one member abstaining Tuesday in Detroit to ask the state Department of Civil Rights to file an amicus brief for a case that the nation’s highest court has not yet taken up – Bellant v. Snyder.

The commission argues that the state’s emergency manager law – which allows the governor to appoint a leader that usurps control from locally elected leaders in financially distressed areas – should be subject to review under the U.S. Voting Rights Act.

The commission has directed the department to submit the amicus brief and any motions or supporting documents in the commission’s name. Civil Rights Department spokeswoman Vicki Levengood said the brief is due May 8.

Levengood said the commission is urging a review of Snyder’s emergency manager law “for the reasons outlined” in a February report that said racism played a role in the Flint water contamination crisis and called for changes to the state’s emergency manager law.

“From our investigation into the Flint water crisis, we believe the lack of accountability from the Emergency Manager to the people and elected representatives of City of Flint is a shortcoming of the Emergency Manager law found in P.A. 436,” said commission co-chair Laura Reyes Kopack. “Flint residents are entitled to judicial review of whether the appointment of an EM violated their rights under the Voting Rights Act.”

Emergency managers were responsible for the decision to switch to the Flint River for the city’s water supply as a cost-cutting move in April 2014. The decision and advice from the state Department of Environmental Quality allowed the highly corrosive river water to leach lead from the city’s aging lead pipes into the drinking water.

Flint residents are still urged to not drink unfiltered tap water.

The report argued that racist practices in Flint such as white flight, poverty and redlining – or renting and selling property to black residents in only certain areas of the city – laid the groundwork for an economic situation allowing Snyder to appoint an emergency manager.

A staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, Darius Charney, and the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice filed suit in 2013, alleging that the state’s emergency manager law was used to essentially deny residents of communities in “financial distress” their voting rights. It asked for a Supreme Court review on March 31.

They note that emergency managers were appointed in predominantly black communities.

Snyder has also suggested the need to overhaul the state’s emergency manager law.

In September 2016, a federal appeals court ruled that the law did not amount to “viewpoint discrimination” or restrict the voting rights of residents in poor communities.

mgerstein@detroitnews.com