Republicans fight subpoenas in straight-ticket lawsuit

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and other Republican legislators are fighting subpoenas that could force them to testify and expose internal debate over a controversial law to ban straight-ticket voting.

The legal drama is unfolding more than a year after a federal judge first suspended the straight-ticket ban in the run-up to the 2016 election, ruling the change could disproportionally burden African-American voters and limit their opportunity to participate in the state’s political process.

Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson and Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office are fighting to implement the ban ahead of the 2018 election cycle, arguing it would neutrally apply to voters of all races. The case is scheduled to go to trial in late December.

The suit contends that eliminating the straight-ticket option would make it “unreasonably harder” for residents to vote and lead to longer lines, particularly in areas with large minority populations believed to vote straight-ticket at higher rates.

Plaintiff attorneys seeking to prove allegations of intentional discrimination have subpoenaed top lawmakers involved in the straight-ticket legislation, demanding they sit for depositions and produce internal documents.

“An important part of this case is: What did the legislators know and when did they know it?” said Mark Brewer, an attorney with the Goodman Acker law firm in Southfield and former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. “Who did they communicate with?”

Republicans served with subpoeanas include Meekhof, R-West Olive, sponsoring Sen. Marty Knollenberg of Troy, Senate Election Committee Chairman Dave Robertson of Grand Blanc and former House Elections Chairwoman Lisa Posthumus Lyons, now working as the Kent County clerk.

In approving the legislation, supporters argued it would encourage more informed decisions by voters and end a policy holdover from the days of big party bosses who attempted to control the vote. After signing the measure, Gov. Rick Snyder said “it’s a good part of the process that people look at each individual office and they look at each candidate.”

Private attorneys for state legislators are attempting to quash the subpoenas, arguing they seek “documents that are irrelevant, voluminous, and impose an impermissible burden and expense” on Meekhof and others who are not named parties in the lawsuit.

The motions also contend plaintiffs are seeking “privileged information” protected under laws that generally shield legislators from subpoenas related to statements made in their official capacity “so as to protect the public’s interests in a robust political process.”

State and federal law “protects Senators Knollenberg and Robertson from being compelled to testify regarding such speech and debate,” their attorneys said in a recent filing while adding that they are protected from a subpoena while the Legislature is in session.

Brewer contends there “is no merit to that argument” and believes a federal magistrate will force legislators to testify. He expects a decision within the next few weeks.

“All around the country in voting rights cases, there are numerous examples where legislators have been compelled to testify,” Brewer said. “We’re going to make our arguments, and we think we have a very strong case.”

Plaintiffs named several Republican lawmakers, including former House Speaker Kevin Cotter of Mount Pleasant, on a list of potential trial witnesses. The list also has current Michigan Republican party Chairman Ron Weiser and former chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, who now heads the Republican National Committee.

Brewer is also expecting expert testimony from Pleasant Ridge Mayor Kurt Metzer, a demographer whom he hired to study the impact of straight-ticket voting and its relationship to communities of color.

The state list of potential trial witnesses includes current and former Bureau of Elections directors Sally Williams and Chris Thomas.

While it is believed straight-ticket voting has historically benefited down-ticket Democrats in Michigan, Republicans claimed the option aided them in 2016 when Republican President Donald Trump’s strength in Macomb County helped the GOP capture three countywide posts held by Democrats.

“The Republicans (repealed) straight ticket voting, the Democrats fought it and got it held, and then we ended being the benefactors of straight-ticket voting,” Lyons said after the election.