Michigan Supreme Court again tells state board to certify Unlock Michigan

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — For the second time, the Michigan Supreme Court on Friday directed the Board of State Canvassers to certify Unlock Michigan's petition signatures and advance the group's proposal to the state Legislature.

On June 11, the state's highest court initially ruled the board had to sign off on the campaign's signaturesto repeal the 1945 law that bolstered Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But an opposition group called Keep Michigan Safe filed a motion for reconsideration.

Unlock Michigan Co-Chairs Garrett Soldano, Ron Armstrong and Meshawn Maddock, left to right, speak to supporters in Lansing Friday, Oct. 2, 2020. The boxes in front are filled with a reported 539,384 petition signatures and delivered by Unlock Michigan to the Michigan Department of State Bureau of Elections in Lansing. The group is seeking to revoke Governor Gretchen Whitmer's ability to govern by emergency decree. The Michigan Supreme Court in June and again on July 9, 2021 ordered the State Board of Canvassers to certify the petitions so they can be sent to the Legislature.

In response to that motion, the Michigan Supreme Court again ordered the Board of State Canvassers to approve the signatures. The court said the investigatory powers of the Board of State Canvassers are limited and the bipartisan panel "has a clear legal duty to certify the petition."

Fred Wszolek, spokesman for Unlock Michigan, on Friday touted the decision.

The Board of State Canvassers has a meeting scheduled for Tuesday when the Unlock Michigan petitions could be considered.

"The Board of State Canvassers needs to do its job on Tuesday and certify the Unlock Michigan petition, finally," Wszolek said. "Over a half million Michigan voters demanded the repeal of the Emergency Powers Act abused by Governor Whitmer for so long, and now their demand will be satisfied."

Mark Fisk, spokesman for Keep Michigan Safe, said his group was "extremely disappointed" by the court decision.

"Unlock Michigan is a brazen political power grab that will put people’s lives at risk and undermine our economy by hamstringing leaders trying to act during public health emergencies for generations to come," Fisk said.

On April 22, the Board of State Canvassers deadlocked on whether to approve the group's petition signatures. The two Democratic members wanted an investigation and new rules on petition collection amid claims of wrongdoing by individuals who gathered signatures for Unlock Michigan.

Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel had previously announced she wouldn't bring any charges after investigating allegations of wrongdoing involving Unlock Michigan. But Democrat Julie Matuzak, one of the four canvassers, called for a probe by the board itself into the signatures.

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

Michigan Bureau of Elections staff estimated 460,358 signatures of the total 538,345 submitted by Unlock Michigan were valid. The group needed 340,047 signatures to obtain certification.

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.

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 tries to revive the law.

Through the initiative process, groups can gather signatures and put a policy change before the Legislature without the governor being able to veto the proposal.

If the Board of State Canvassers certified Unlock Michigan's petitions on Tuesday, the GOP-controlled Legislature could approve the policy this month.

The Michigan Senate is scheduled to be in session on Thursday. The House has session days tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, Thursday and July 21.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has been "pretty emphatic that when we get it we will vote on it," his spokeswoman Abby Walls said Friday.

cmauger@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.