Bankole: Duggan playing politics with no-fault reform legal fight

Bankole Thompson
Bankole writes: "Politically, the lawsuit helps the mayor boost his “problem-solving” image but that’s where it stops and nothing else. "

Mayor Mike Duggan’s latest stab at reforming the state’s no-fault auto insurance law is wrongheaded and smacks of a man who wants to win at all cost. Duggan filed a lawsuit last week against the state, asking a federal court to nullify the 1973 no-fault system as unconstitutional because rates are not fair and equitable. 

The mayor’s lawsuit requests a six-month grace period for the state to get its act together to change the law, and if that fails, he prefers that Michigan return to a tort-based system because that would be considered more affordable.

But the problem with Duggan’s lawsuit is that it fails to really arrest the problem: insurance companies have a lot of sway in the factors they use to determine rates such as credit scores, occupation, education, zip codes etc. Those factors amount to redlining. Blatantly attacking hospitals and trial lawyers instead of tackling the powerful insurance industry lobby is tantamount to misfiring.

The mayor needs to put pressure on the insurance lobby, which rakes in a fortune from the factors they use to determine rates, and not selectively scapegoating other stakeholders he may need as allies in seeking reform.

Auto insurance rates are too high in a largely impoverished Detroit, and something needs to be done about it. It is true that the high cost of automobile insurance is one of the biggest quality of life issues Detroiters face. Duggan deserves some credit for keeping the issue alive even though he is taking the wrong route. But it cannot be a shortcut because a tort system does not have all the benefits guaranteed to a motorist under a no-fault system. 

By going to court, the mayor is overstepping the bounds of the legislature, which largely rejected his plan last year because he did not play his cards right. The insurance bill he pushed not only failed, it wasn’t even close. To show how it was doomed from the start, Duggan could not even get a majority of Detroit legislative caucus members behind his plan. And after the collapse of the bill, instead of reconvening, making amends and finding common ground, Duggan, went to a local church and issued a threat to unseat the lawmakers who did not back his plan in Lansing.

The mayor is a student of politics and the law. He need not be reminded that the legislature makes laws and the courts are there to interpret them. It is not the role of the judiciary to take away the function of the legislature. Judges cannot supplant legislators. That’s not how our democracy works.

Let’s be clear. What Duggan is doing with his lawsuit is deliberately circumventing the legislative process. In the process, he is acting like a political strongman: do what I want or else. That kind of approach to governance is not going to help the mayor achieve anything significant for Detroit in Lansing. He should not appear to be trying an end run around the issue instead of facing the legislature and taking on the giant insurance industry.

The lawsuit, which is nothing but a political move to whip people into a frenzy and create the impression that he’s doing all he can, has the propensity to go nowhere.  

At a recent community meeting, Duggan signaled he was going to court on the issue. The reaction from some in the audience was all cheers. Politically, the lawsuit helps the mayor boost his “problem-solving” image but that’s where it stops. Detroit drivers will continue to pay high costs for insurance.  

If Duggan wants to seriously tackle the problem and deal with how insurance companies dictate rates unfairly based on geography and other biographical information, he would assemble a coalition to take that head-on. But running to the courts to upend a longstanding law — which is unfair but still better than the alternative of a tort system — is not the right move.

The mayor should pull the lawsuit back immediately, invite all the members of the Detroit delegation (including those he disagrees with) to a meeting at the Manoogian Mansion and start all over. After that, he can march to Lansing carefully for real reform.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.