Unlock Michigan asks state's high court to order petition approval

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Unlock Michigan, the group looking to repeal a state law that enabled Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic, is asking the state's Supreme Court to intervene and send its proposal to the Legislature.

On Friday, Unlock Michigan's attorneys filed a complaint arguing that the Board of State Canvassers wrongfully blocked the certification of more than 500,000 petition signatures. The lawsuit was filed by the ballot committee and two of the individuals who helped gather signatures, Nancy Hyde-Davis and George Fisher.

"The court must protect the initiative process," Unlock Michigan's filing with the state Supreme Court said. "More than 500,000 Michiganders deserve to have their voices heard."

A group gathers as boxes filled with a reported 539,384 petition signatures are delivered by Unlock Michigan to the Michigan Department of State Bureau of Elections in Lansing Friday, October 2, 2020. The group is seeking to revoke Governor Gretchen Whitmer's ability to govern by emergency decree.

The filing called the state's high court, which currently has a majority of Democratic-nominated justices, its "last hope." Unlock Michigan wants the court to order the Board of State Canvassers to "certify the petition and refer the question to the Legislature."

Then, the Republican-controlled Legislature could approve the policy into law without Whitmer, a Democrat, having a chance to veto it.

Unlock Michigan submitted more than 538,000 signatures in support of its proposal to the Bureau of Elections on Oct. 2. The requirement for the initiative to go before the Legislature was 340,047 signatures. The Secretary of State's staff reviewed the petitions and estimated about 460,358 of the signatures were valid, 120,000 more than the minimum necessary.

However, last week, the two Democratic members of the four-member Board of State Canvassers raised concerns about the processes Unlock Michigan used to collect the signatures. Democrat Julie Matuzak called for an investigation and new rules for reviewing petitions.

She and fellow Democrat Jeannette Bradshaw opposed certifying Unlock Michigan's signatures, leaving the vote deadlocked 2-2 with the Republican canvassers in support of certification.

"We are the gatekeepers of election integrity," Matuzak said at the April 22 meeting. "And election integrity includes petitions. I think we let down voters if we don't exercise the power that we have."

In the filing with the Michigan Supreme Court on Friday, Unlock Michigan argued that the board had an obligation to certify the signatures and violated its supporters' constitutional rights "in failing to fulfill their clear legal duty." 

"The right to voice core political speech was trampled with undue restriction," the brief said. "The right to due process was dispensed with when irrelevancies and made-up processes carried the day."

Unlock Michigan's proposal would repeal the 1945 Emergency Powers of the Governor Act, which allowed a governor to declare a state of emergency and keep it in place without input from the Legislature. The governor could take unilateral actions, like suspending state laws, under the declaration.

Whitmer used the law to support her executive orders to require masks be worn and to limit gatherings and restrict businesses in the early months of the pandemic.

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional on Oct. 2, the same day Unlock Michigan submitted its petition signatures to the Bureau of Elections. Despite the court decision, supporters of Unlock Michigan, which has ties to state Senate Republicans, want the law formally repealed in case a court later revives the law.

There's been a months-long fight over the petition collection processes used by the group. An opposition committee called Keep Michigan Safe has alleged that the petition gatherers had been coached "to blatantly lie to convince people to sign petitions" and had used other improper tactics. 

Attorney General Dana Nessel's office investigated but found there wasn't sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges.

“Our investigation found clear evidence of misrepresentation by the petition circulators and questionable training by persons who recruited and were supposed to supervise paid circulators," the attorney general said. "However, those incidents were not in violation of any criminal statute.”

Attorneys Eric Doster, Michael Williams and Frankie Dame authored Unlock Michigan's new filing with the Michigan Supreme Court.