On wild day, Michigan lawmakers move to give themselves lawsuit power

Protestors gathered in the Rotunda of the Michigan state Capitol building Tuesday to voice their frustrations with lame duck legislation. (Photo by Riley Beggin)

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 controversial bill to allow the Michigan Legislature to intervene in any lawsuit advanced with no public testimony Tuesday, as a House committee voted 3-2 along party lines to send it to the floor.

The bill has attracted accusations of a blatant power grab by Republicans during the lame duck session in the weeks before Democrats assume the state’s most powerful offices, including Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel.

Not so, said bill sponsor Rep. Rob VerHeulen, R-Walker, who told the committee Tuesday the measure would simply allow legislators to have their voices heard in court.

“What we’re seeing today is many of the decisions historically made in legislative chambers are now being challenged or made in courtrooms,” VerHeulen said. “The Legislature has a distinct view, and when its actions or inactions are being evaluated in a courtroom, they should have the right to engage and have that view heard.”

The vote came during a raucous day in the Capitol, marked by protests and chants from liberal activists.

Three people were thrown out of the proceedings, with one protestor calling the bill an “un-American exercise” and another chanting “you were wrong, we were right, now you want more oversight,” while being escorted from the room.

Another drama played out downstairs, as the state Senate was briefly evacuated due to a bomb scare.

The vote came over objections from Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Sam Singh of East Lansing, who noted the Legislature has the power to direct the attorney general to intervene in lawsuits.

VerHeulen didn’t disagree but said his measure would give the Legislature the power to intervene for itself. He predicted the power would be rarely used and the Legislature wouldn’t intervene on behalf of the people of Michigan.

“That is the role that is reserved for the attorney general,” VerHeulen said.

During the short hearing, state Rep. Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, questioned possible cost increases related to the bill.

Related: Michigan power grabs, pipelines and pot: What we’re tracking in lame duck
Related: In lame duck, all eyes are on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder

A House Fiscal Agency analysis wrote that costs would “be directly related to the number and complexity of the cases in which the Legislature chose to intervene.”

“When we have roads to fix and schools to fund,” she asked, “how can you possibly justify setting up this parallel organization when we already have a process in place to take care of these issues?”

VerHeulen’s answer was inaudible, drowned out by the roar of applause from protestors. Before the noise died down, the committee approved the bill, and legislators walked out of the room.

Introduced just last week, the bill and debate about it is unusual for a lame duck session, said Arnold Weinfeld, the interim director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.

“My experience during lame ducks is that you have legislators who are leaving who are trying to get bills they’ve been working on for a number of years passed,” he said.  

“I cannot recall in my time working in the legislature for 30-plus years an effort by the then-majority party to limit the powers of incoming constitutional officers such as a governor, secretary of state or attorney general.”

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Dennis Thering
Tue, 12/04/2018 - 9:00pm

North Carolina and Wisconsin republicans are doing the same thing. This doesn't surprise me as this legislature in particular, led by Meekof, has usurped the will of the people every lame duck session. Against the voters will they've passed an EM bill, a gas tax hike, and a right to work law. A pox on them

Joan M McComber
Wed, 12/05/2018 - 12:47am

Republicans are not known for being honest in their reasons for introducing certain types of bills. This one sounds like much the same thing. As we have three branches of government -- the governor, the legislature, and the court system, why do we need a law that muddles that divide? I think if congress passes a law, and it is challenged in the courts, they would get the chance to have their say. That process makes a bill like this one irrelevant and unnecessary.

Neil Sikora
Wed, 12/05/2018 - 5:26am

A good rule of thumb is to ask, if it is such important legislation, why didn’t you introduce it a year ago, or 6 months ago, or 3 months ago? Weren’t you doing your job then, or are you just abusing your power now?

jane d
Wed, 12/05/2018 - 7:43am

I was there. They were going through bills at lightening speed. Some loitered outside talking to the lobbyists and smirking at the protesters. It was sickening to see this misuse of power. They were happily crapping on the heads of us voters to make buck apparently. Disgusting.

Wed, 12/05/2018 - 9:32am

I am not surprised by this. This is the typical patriarchal approach to government which is the only way the Republicans know how to govern. No dialogue, no collaboration, and no balance of power.

We have all seen the deterioration in MI over the past 10 years, and yet they brag that business is booming. Voters are irrelevant, transparency is non existent, and all quality of life indicators are at the bottom when ranked with other states. Voters need to be involved in whole new ways to allow their voices to be heard.

Lee Griffin
Wed, 12/05/2018 - 9:53am

I think I'm not going to worry about this too much. Although I agree these bills are an egregious power play, the legislature will soon be elected without the flagrant abuses of gerrymandering, and these blatantly anti-democratic autocrats will be in minority, if they aren't put out to pasture entirely. Certain Republicans have no idea how many people they've ticked off intensely and permanently, and how hard we'll be working to defeat them.

Kathy Day
Sat, 12/08/2018 - 10:21pm

In regards to House Bill 6553,   authorizing the Legislature "to intervene in any action in any court of this state", & Senate Bill 1243, which proposes major changes to the voter-approved Proposal 1 to legalize cannabis, & Senate Bill 1175 extending the wage hike until year 2030, and decrease paid sick leave,
Michigan legislators should focus on representing the will of the people, which is what they were elected for, not on becoming authoritarians.