Update: Gov. Snyder vetoes bill allowing legislative lawsuits
Dec. 21: That's a wrap! What bills passed, died in Michigan lame duck for the ages
Related: See what Michigan lame-duck bills we're tracking
A Senate committee on Tuesday narrowed the scope of a Republican bill that would allow the Legislature to unilaterally intervene in lawsuits. The measure, which critics said was an effort to neutralize an incoming Democratic Attorney General, was sent to the Senate floor for a vote.
The Senate committee’s changes to the bill on Tuesday now limit the Legislature’s ability to intervene in lawsuits only in instances that challenge the constitutionality of a state law, the validity of legislation or any legislative action.
The revised bill also adds a section that states the bill does not restrict any right or duty of the Attorney General.
State Rep. Rob VerHeulen, R-Walker, said the bill would allow the Legislature to intervene without requiring approval from a court, but only in rare circumstances.
State Rep. Rob VerHeulen, R-Walker, said his bill is intended to give the Legislature a tool to intervene when state laws it passed are challenged, and is not an effort to grab power from Democrats.
“It is not a partisan bill,” he testified before the Senate committee. “While the control of the House or the Senate may be in the hands of one party today, at some point it’s going to be in the control of the other party. And the purpose of the bill is to provide a tool for the Legislature, irrespective of which party may control the House or the Senate or the governor’s office or the Attorney General’s office.”
Since it was introduced late last month, the bill has prompted criticism that it is an effort by legislative Republicans to bind the hands of incoming Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, who has been critical of the handling of several cases pressed by outgoing Republican AG Bill Schuette. Democrats swept the top statewide offices, including governor, Attorney General and Secretary of State, in the November election.
VerHeulen said “it is regrettable” that the bill has been grouped with other lame-duck legislation that appear intended to limit powers of the incoming Democratic administration. Republican-held legislatures in Michigan and Wisconsin have gotten national attention during the year-end sessions over what critics say is a GOP-sponsored power grab from incoming Democrats.
A few Michigan residents spoke to the Senate panel Tuesday, sharing their opposition to the bill.
Lauren Sargent, of Ann Arbor, told lawmakers that VerHeulen’s bill sets an unhealthy precedent.
“This is going directly to attack the separation of powers as outlined in the Michigan constitution, and it’s a nullification of the vote that we just participated in,” Sargent testified Tuesday. “This is disrespecting the rule of law, the constitution and all of your roles if we basically go behind the backs of the voters and undo what we just did.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said public pressure in lame-duck session prompted revisions that limit the scope of lawsuits in which the Legislature can intervene.
Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, told reporters after Tuesday’s committee hearing that he believes the public pressure Republicans have gotten in lame duck inspired Republicans’ decision to narrow the bill.
But, he added, the bill still violates the checks and balances the state constitution gives to each branch of government, an apparent reference to criticism that the bill, if it becomes law, infringes on the discretion of judges to decide if an outside party can intervene in a lawsuit.
“They’re getting pressure to not take their ball and go home, so they’re making changes to it,” Ananich said. “An unnecessary bill doesn’t need to be fixed. It just needs to be killed.”
But Bruce Timmons, a retired legal and policy adviser to the Michigan Legislature, said the Legislature’s ability to intervene in cases should not be subject to a court’s discretion, and a state Attorney General may disagree with the Legislature on defending some policies.
“How much do you want to be represented by a reluctant advocate?” Timmons testified, referring to the Attorney General’s office. “I do not perceive the Legislature as being overbroad on this. I think they’re being careful, selective and (will) ruffle as few feathers as possible.”
The bill now heads to the full Senate for a vote. If it passes there, the House would need to vote to adopt the Senate’s changes before sending the bill to Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk. Snyder has not indicated whether he would sign the bill.