Civil Rights Attorneys Challenge Michigan Law That Led to Poisoning of Flint Water

For Immediate Release

Civil Rights Attorneys Challenge Michigan Law That Led to Poisoning of Flint Water

FLINT, Mich. - Civil rights attorneys from the Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice, National Lawyers Guild, Sanders Law Firm, the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights have filed an appeal in Phillips v. Snyder, a 2013 federal lawsuit challenging Michigan’s controversial emergency manager law, Public Act 436.

The appeal urges the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to reinstate claims that the law discriminates on the basis of income and race, deprives thousands of Michigan citizens of their fundamental right to vote, freedom of speech and association, and their rights under the Voting Rights Act.

The law allows the state to replace locally-elected mayors, city and town councils, and school boards in so-called “financially-distressed” municipalities and school districts with unelected emergency managers. Emergency managers in the city of Flint were directly responsible for switching the source of the city’s water supply to the contaminated Flint River, poisoning the city’s population.

Emergency managers have been imposed almost exclusively upon low-income communities of color throughout the state. Fifty percent of Michigan’s Black residents have been placed under emergency manager rule, compared to only two percent of the state’s white population.

“To see the danger of Michigan’s emergency manager law, we need only to look at the tragedy in Flint, where unelected emergency managers unaccountable to the city’s residents made decisions that have caused grave harm to the lives and health of thousands of people, most of them low income people of color and many of them children,” said attorney Herb Sanders, a member of the Plaintiffs’ legal team.

Public Act 436 shifts all legislative and executive power from locally-elected officials to state- appointed emergency managers. The case argues that the law violates federal constitutional rights to due process of law and discriminates on the basis of income by depriving residents of financially-struggling cities and towns throughout Michigan of the right to vote to elect the officials that govern them.

In addition, the lawsuit claims that the law has been applied in a racially-discriminatory manner that overwhelmingly targets majority-Black communities for emergency manager rule and thus violates both the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA).

A lower court allowed the Equal Protection racial discrimination claim to proceed, but dismissed the due process, income discrimination, freedom of speech, Voting Rights Act, and republican form of government claims, ruling that the Constitution does not recognize a fundamental right to vote and that the VRA only protects the right to cast a ballot.

“This case aims to vindicate one of, if not the most fundamental rights afforded to citizens of this country: the right to elect those who represent us in government,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney Darius Charney. “What good is the right to cast a ballot if those you elect are powerless to govern? Emergency manager laws have effectively canceled democracy for low-income and Black people in Michigan.”

Michigan’s previous emergency manager law enacted in 2011, was repealed in a statewide voter referendum in 2012. One month later, the Michigan legislature enacted the new emergency manager law challenged today.

Michigan’s law is unprecedented, the first such measure enacted anywhere in the United States that shifts all legislative and executive power from elected officials to appointed officials. Phillips follows an earlier case, Brown v. Snyder, that challenged Michigan’s previous emergency manager law. That case was rendered moot when the law was repealed. 

“Michigan’s emergency manager law is profoundly undemocratic and discriminatory. The ongoing crisis in Flint and in Detroit’s school system show the perils that this form of nontransparent and unaccountable governance invites,” said John Philo, Executive and Legal Director of the Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice. “We are confident that the Court of Appeals will find in our favor, and if the legislature is unwilling to repeal the law, that it will be struck down by the courts.”

The Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, the National Lawyers Guild/Michigan-Detroit Chapter, the ACLU, and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), along with several Michigan civil rights lawyers filed both cases.

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The Center for Constitutional Rights is dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.

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