LatinoJustice & Dēmos File Amicus in Supreme Court Case Challenging Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law under the Voting Rights Act

Release Date: 
May 10, 2017

LatinoJustice PRLDEF (“LatinoJustice”) and Dēmos submitted an amici curiae brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of a petition for certiorari challenging Michigan’s controversial Emergency Manager Law, Public Act (PA) 436, arguing that laws which remove governmental authority from locally-elected officials in municipalities that have disproportionately large minority populations are discriminatory and subject to scrutiny under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and that the Sixth Circuit ruled in error below by failing to examine the statute under Section 2’s totality of circumstances test.  The amici are represented by Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.

The original case, Bellant v. Snyder, was filed by a coalition of local citizens, organizations and civil rights attorneys, including the Sugar Law Center and the Center for Constitutional Rights.  They have asked the Court to rule on a law that allows the State to replace all local elected officials and elected school boards in financially distressed municipalities and school districts with an unelected emergency manager.

The case asserts that the law is racially discriminatory and that it deprives citizens of their rights under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, reasoning that “Michigan’s statute is not just acting as a tool to aid cities in financial distress; it empowers the state to completely strip communities of color of a meaningful right to vote in local elections, supplanting elected municipal officials with unelected appointees who are not required to be responsive or accountable” to the local electorate.

“Had the Sixth Circuit properly applied the law and considered the results and effects of Michigan’s PA 436—a state law that effectively ends municipal representation for more than half of the state’s black citizens, while leaving the structure of local democracy fully intact for the majority of its white citizens —it would likely have found a violation under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act,” said Joanna Cuevas Ingram, Associate Counsel, LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “The discriminatory effect in this case joins a long line of vote dilution, racial gerrymandering, and vote denial cases, the latest ‘sophisticated device’ contemplated by Congress when it amended the Act in 1982 to address these types of harms.  An ‘emergency manager law’ applied with almost surgical precision to unequivocally deny, dilute or supplant the opportunity to elect candidates of choice and the right to elect effective, accountable and responsive local representatives in seven majority-minority communities of color, effectively disenfranchising over 50 percent of the state’s black population, causes the same discriminatory harm as any racial gerrymander would, and that is enough to trigger the same appropriately searching standard of review under the Voting Rights Act. ”

PA 436, transfers all governing power from locally-elected legislative officials to state-appointed emergency managers. The managers have been imposed almost exclusively upon communities of color throughout the state—the brief notes that under PA 436, 98% of the state’s white residents are represented in their local government by officials they had an opportunity to elect, and yet more than 50 percent of the state’s black residents and nearly 16 percent of its Latino population have been stripped of that same right. Michigan is over 75% white, but the communities with emergency managers are on average only 38% white. 

Emergency managers in the City of Flint were directly responsible for the unilateral decisions to switch the source of the city’s water supply to the contaminated Flint River, poisoning the city’s population.

“Michigan’s emergency manager law has disproportionately denied residents of color the ability to elect local office holders, and resulted in the adoption of local policies that have negatively impacted the health and educational opportunities for such residents.  The ability to vote and select office holders free from interference or dilution – which is protected by the Voting Rights Act - allows all Americans to have an equal voice in our democracy. The emergency manager law violates the fundamental precepts of the VRA and directly contradicts the principles our country stands for,” said Naila Awan, Counsel at Dēmos.

Civil rights groups argue that PA 436 discriminates on the basis of race, deprives hundreds of thousands of Michigan citizens of their fundamental right to vote, freedom of speech and association, and their rights under the Voting Rights Act. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, affirmed a lower court decision holding that the Voting Rights Act protects only the physical act of casting a ballot. Michigan’s sweeping state law is unprecedented, removing all governing power from all elected officials in the selected community and grants it to the governor’s hand-picked emergency manager. The state’s previous Emergency Manager Law, enacted in 2011, was repealed in a statewide voter referendum in 2012.  One month later, the lame-duck Michigan legislature enacted the new emergency manager law. The case petitioned to the Supreme Court follows an earlier case, Brown v. Snyder, which challenged the 2011 law. Brown was rendered moot when the 2011 law was repealed.                               

The coalition of Michigan residents challenging the law is represented by Professor Samuel Bagenstos of the University of Michigan Law School, the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, the National Lawyers Guild/Michigan-Detroit Chapter, the ACLU Fund of Michigan, and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), along with several Michigan civil rights lawyers at the law firms of The Sanders Law Firm, PC, Goodman & Hurwitz PC, and Constitutional Litigation Associates PC.                                        

Read the amici brief from LatinoJustice and Dēmos here.

For more information, visit the Sugar Law Center’s case page and the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.