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Flint judge suggests higher court might rule on venue for Snyder charges

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Judge William Crawford of the 67th District Court pondered Tuesday whether a higher court should rule on the proper place to bring charges against former Gov. Rick Snyder for his role in the Flint water crisis.

During a brief virtual hearing, Crawford asked Snyder's attorneys and lawyers working for the Michigan Attorney General's Office to consider whether he was the appropriate judge to decidethe fight over the venue for two misdemeanor charges against the former Republican governor.

Crawford noted that it was Genesee County Circuit Judge David Newblatt who acted as a one-judge grand jury and authorized the charges against Snyder.

Former Gov. Rick Snyder stays silent as barrage of media asks questions after his video arraignment on charges related to the Flint water crisis, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021 outside the Genesee County Jail in downtown Flint.

"My question is whether or not this matter should more properly be brought before maybe, potentially, Judge Newblatt, or the chief judge for the Genesee County Circuit Court or perhaps, even the Michigan Court of Appeals,” Crawford said.

The judge said he believes he can handle the matter fairly but suggested that his ultimate decision might be questioned because he's considering the choices of a "superior judge" from the circuit court.

"Some might think that’s an appearance of bias or lack of objectivity that is inappropriate," Crawford said.

The judge asked the two sides to provide feedback by Monday on that issue and whether it's appropriate for him as a Flint resident to handle the case.

In court filings, attorneys for Snyder have contended that prosecutors brought the charges in the incorrect county. The alleged wrongdoing took place in Ingham County, where the governor's office is located, but the charges were brought in Genesee County, where Flint is located, they have argued.

The question of whether prosecutors filed the case in the wrong county was "significant for how this case goes forward," said Matthew Schneider, the former Detroit U.S. attorney and a partner at the Honigman law firm.

"(S)o it’s not surprising that the judge would want more time to consider the arguments before ruling," Schneider said.

One of the counts of willful neglect of duty against the former governor says Snyder failed to declare a state of emergency or disaster, although he was notified of a threat of an emergency or disaster in Flint. Snyder did eventually declare a state of emergency in January 2016 — three months after he had Flint shift its water source back to Detroit's regional water system.

The other count says Snyder failed to inquire into "the performance, condition and administration" of officers whom he appointed and was required to supervise under the state Constitution. Legal experts say this likely refers to the state-appointed emergency managers who were in place in Flint and working under Snyder. Two of them also face charges.

During the Monday hearing, Brian Lennon, an attorney for Snyder, said the prosecution could dismiss the charges against the former governor and "walk over to Lansing and file it like they do thousands of other misdemeanor cases."

Bryant Osikowicz, Michigan assistant attorney general, replied, "We will not be dismissing, walking over to Lansing."

Crawford also noted that attorneys for Snyder's former Chief of Staff Jarrod Agen have made similar arguments about the venue in front of Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Kelly.

Agen, is facing a single felony charge of perjury, which carries a possible 15-year sentence. His attorneys, J. Benjamin Dolan, Seth Waxman and Scott MacGriff, have said Agen made no false statements and the interview in question took place in Ingham County, not Genesee County.

“It raises an issue of potential inconsistent rulings,” Crawford said.

After the hearing, Snyder's legal team issued a statement saying Crawford was asking "all the right questions."

"The state’s decision to use a secretive and archaic one-person grand jury to bring misdemeanor charges against a former governor is unprecedented," Snyder's team added. "It is also unconscionable."

Newblatt, the one-judge grand jury, authorized a combined 41 charges against nine individuals as part of an investigation by Attorney General Dana Nessel's office. The charges were announced on Jan. 14.

The highest-ranking official among them, Snyder, is facing two counts of willful neglect of duty. The misdemeanor counts carry a penalty of one year behind bars and a fine of up to $1,000.

cmauger@detroitnews.com