Democrats commit foul with Penn St./Supreme Court link, Truth Squad rules

MICHIGAN TRUTH SQUAD ANALYSIS: "Extreme Supreme Court Endangers Our Children"

Who: Michigan Democratic Party

What: Internet ad

Truth Squad call: Foul

Questionable statement: "The Penn State scandal was a tragedy that didn't have to happen. Lives were destroyed because top university officials covered up the abuse for years. Child abuse victims deserve their day in court, but here in Michigan they would be denied justice."

This statement from the ad suggests that child abusers such as former Penn State football coach and serial child molester Jerry Sandusky would go free. In fact, the assertion is limited to civil suits against parties responsible for it. Even there, the ad provides no supporting facts. The only reference is two legal citations for two controversial Supreme Court rulings shown on the screen. Viewers would have to wade through lengthy legal documents to evaluate whether they agree.

Questionable statement: "Rulings to shield powerful officials from liability and allow those that cover up crimes to avoid responsibility. These extreme opinions by the Michigan Supreme Court endanger our children."

The two cases cited are Trentadue v. Buckler Automatic Lawn Sprinkler Co. and LaMeau v. City of Royal Oak. One of the cases, LaMeau, included city engineers, who are marginally powerful officials at best. Neither involved a cover-up.

In Trentadue, a Flint woman, Margarette Eby, was murdered in 1986, but the killer wasn't caught -- or known -- until 2002. Only then did her family understand the circumstances sufficiently to make a case about whether anyone should be held accountable civilly. The family filed a civil suit against several parties, including the killer, his parents and their lawn sprinkler company (related to how the man accessed her residence), Ms. Eby's landlord's estate and a management company. The Republican Supreme Court majority ruled that the three-year statute of limitations had expired, long before the killer was identified. Three justices, including the two Democrats, dissented.

(Though technically nonpartisan, Supreme Court justices make it to the ballot typically through the nomination of a political party convention.)

The court's job is to interpret state laws enacted by the Legislature, and the Republicans on the bench often look at statutes more literally than their Democratic colleagues. In this case, the law regarding statutes of limitations says: "except as otherwise expressly provided, the period of limitations runs from the time the claim accrues" and that "the claim accrues at the time the wrong upon which the claim is based was done." In other words, the three-year statute of limitations began at the time of the murder.

The dissenting justices looked more broadly at the intent of the statute of limitation law. Justice Elizabeth Weaver, a Republican who was among the dissenters, wrote that the primary purposes of the statute of limitations are to encourage plaintiffs to pursue cases diligently and to protect defendants against "stale and fraudulent claims." In her view, the statute of limitations would not have begun to run until the murderer was known.

The minority's interpretation would allow some cases to go forward that would be blocked by the statute of limitations under the majority decision. That doesn't necessarily mean they should. If the Legislature believes that the statute should not apply in some specific set of cases, such as child abuse or murder, it has an obvious remedy: change the law.

In LaMeau, a man driving a scooter was killed when he rode on a sidewalk and ran into a utility guy wire going across the sidewalk (a small portion was supposed to be blocked off). Testimony indicated that the city engineers received numerous warnings about the potential danger. It also showed the driver was drunk and speeding at the time of the accident. The Republican majority held that the scooter driver was "the proximate cause" and granted immunity to the city and government officials. The court minority believed that there was sufficient evidence of negligence on the part of the city officials to allow the case to go forward.

The Democratic Party says the LaMeau case demonstrates it would be extremely difficult to hold individuals accountable who knew about the child abuse and covered it up. But it's not clear how the facts in the Penn State case would match up. In LaMeau, there was a dispute over who was primarily to blame in the accident. At Penn State, Sandusky was obviously the main culprit.

MSU law professor Brian Kalt reviewed the ad at the request of the Truth Squad and said the cases don't back up the claims. He wrote, via email, "If they want to say 'Vote for the Democrats -- they'll be more liberal,' then OK. But suggesting that the court -- let alone these three Republican members/potential members of the court -- has decided things that make it clear that Penn State-type victims would be out of luck if they were in Michigan? I think they are out of line here."

Overall impression: The ad, with images of Sandusky and head football coach Joe Paterno, is designed to evoke emotion from one of the most notorious child abuse crimes in U.S. history to persuade voters that Republican Supreme Court justices (and future ones) will not protect victims of child abuse.

Decisions by the Supreme Court do have a lasting impact on people's lives, and the number of decisions with clear partisan splits in recent years show that Democratic-nominated and Republican-nominated justices approach decisions with different perspectives and reach different conclusions. But each case is unique; while it is fair game to criticize decisions that have been made, it is a stretch to apply them to a completely different set of facts.

In addition, the people who run political ads owe voters some set of facts on which the ad is based. In this case, the ad makes a broad generalization about endangering children and fails to back it up.

Foul or no foul: Foul, for attempting to use a recent, emotionally resonant case in Pennsylvania courts to predict the results of Michigan cases without detailed explanations of how that would happen.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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