Editorial: Supreme Court right to restore blind draw in Flint water lawsuit
Confidence in government at all levels is shot to pieces because of the bungling of the Flint water crisis. The judicial branch doesn’t need to voluntarily cloak itself in distrust as well. That’s what Michael Talbot, chief judge of the state Court of Claims, risked doing by breaking protocol and inserting himself in a class action suit against the state filed by those who charge they were harmed by the lead-laden water.
In January, a group of residents sued Gov. Rick Snyder, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, the state Department of Health and Human Services and two former Flint emergency managers over damages incurred from drinking the city’s water.
Lawsuits filed against the state with a potential value above $1,000 are first heard in the Court of Claims. Standard practice is that cases are assigned to judges based on a blind draw.
That’s how the Flint lawsuit was initially placed on the docket of Judge Mark Boonstra. But Talbot, invoking rules that went into effect just two months ago, exercised the prerogative to take on the case himself.
Tuesday, the state Supreme Court made things right by urging Talbot to honor the blind draw.
The Court of Claims in 2013 was broken away from the Ingham County Circuit Court by Republican-backed legislation. The lawmakers felt the Ingham County judges were too liberal and often hostile to the state.
It is now staffed by judges from the state Court of Appeals.
Talbot, who was appointed to the state appeals court in 1988 by Republican Gov. John Engler and was named its chief in 2013, is considered friendly to the Snyder administration.
He delivered the governor a victory in 2014 when he ruled Michigan did not have to refund more than $1 billion in tax breaks to out-of-state companies. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce described the decision as “utterly disappointing and stunning.”
Lawyers for the Flint plaintiffs filed a motion questioning the propriety of the reassignment of the case to Talbot and asking it be returned to the blind draw.
“Allowing judges to bypass the blind draw, especially in high-profile cases like the Flint water crisis, erodes the public’s confidence in the court’s impartiality,” the plaintiffs’ attorney, Michael Pitt, told The Detroit News.
And he’s right. With public suspicion of how government operates already high, it was a poor decision by Talbot to create the perception that the Snyder administration is trying to game the legal system.
It’s not good for the governor or for the court.
Boonstra is a fine judge capable of adjudicating this case fairly.
The Supreme Court was right to urge Talbot to restore the case to him.
Flint is too sensitive a case to give even the appearance of impropriety as it moves through the legal system.