Bankole: Nessel rebukes Whitmer, affirms role as people’s lawyer

Bankole Thompson
The statement from Attorney General Dana Nessel's office is a blow to the governor, who has been insisting for the last two months that she had no choice but to close Benton Harbor High School in order to save the school district, Thompson says.

Correction: This column has been updated to properly attribute a statement to a spokeswoman for Attorney General Dana Nessel, saying Gov. Gretchen Whitmer does not have authority to close Benton Harbor’s high schools. This statement was wrongly attributed, as a quotation, to Nessel. It also was not a formal legal opinion, as the piece asserted.

Charles Hamilton Houston demonstrated how lawyers can play an important role in fostering democracy and promoting social change. The former dean of Howard University Law School was an architect of the legal strategies that defeated Jim Crow, challenging the "separate but equal" doctrine and laying the ground work for the success of the historic Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case.

Also a mentor to former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Houston was a quintessential example of how lawyers can remove barriers to change and improve conditions in communities that are racially and economically disadvantaged.

“A lawyer’s either a social engineer or a parasite on society," Houston once said. "A social engineer is a highly skilled, perceptive, sensitive lawyer who understands the Constitution of the United States and knows how to explore its uses in the solving of problems of local communities and in bettering conditions of the underprivileged citizens."

The recent statement from Attorney General Dana Nessel's office that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has no legal basis to shut down the only high school in Benton Harbor, a segregated poor black city, underscores Houston's view of lawyers as a critical part of the last line of defense for voiceless and disenfranchised communities.

Her office's opinion is a blow to the governor who has been insisting for the last two months that she had no choice but to close Benton Harbor High School in order to save the school district.

The position in a broader sense shows the consequential impact of attorney generals in our current political climate using their powers to influence and implement social transformation. She is walking alongside other difference-making AGs across the nation who realize that their power is not limited to the traditional confines of the office, but that they can also expand their tentacles to create a more inclusive system of justice.

After public outcries, town hall meetings and the pleas for the governor to not pull the plug on Benton Harbor, it was important for the state’s chief lawyer to finally weigh in decisively on a fiasco that has largely been a nightmare for the 10,000 residents of that southwestern part of the state.

That position is a big relief to Benton Harbor, where I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to understand the enormity of the crisis, how it began and the tone-deaf approach of the Whitmer administration from the beginning. The failure of the administration to move away from the threat of shutting down the high school, and instead to look at Benton Harbor’s educational challenges through the prism of a larger urban crisis highlights its problematic view of urban issues.

Representing the people of Michigan, Nessel has shown that she can stand up against the apparent overreach of the state’s chief executive.

 Her office threw down a gauntlet in the face of the most powerful political leader in the state. The public rebuke of the governor's plan to close the school was surgical.

What is also remarkable about the attorney general’s position for the governor to stand down in Benton Harbor is that they both belong to the Democratic Party. As opposed to taking the partisan line, which is the political norm these days, Nessel chose fidelity to the law, which is what is expected of any elected official with the capacity to use the tools available to them in advancing a distinctive democratic value.

Nessel's office indicated the governor could send a financial review team to Benton Harbor that could result in the appointment of an emergency manager to preside over the challenges facing the district. Even though Whitmer talked tough during the campaign about being opposed to emergency management, it won’t be a surprise if she appoints an emergency manager for Benton Harbor. She is already reneging on some of her campaign promises including the appointment of a poverty secretary.

If there is one thing the AG office's declaration revealed, it is that the governor’s political tactics and strategies to governing are alarming.