Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Michigan Supreme Court tackles font sizes, printing details in emergency-manager law

LANSING (Detroit Free Press) — The justices of the Michigan Supreme Court engaged in a spirited and detailed debate about font styles, font sizes, and printing point sizes today as they heard arguments on whether a challenge to the state's toughened emergency manager law should have a place on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Chief Justice Robert Young, Jr. said in front of a packed courtoom he's been reading about printing going back to the beginning of the last century and he's fascinated by the issues presented in the case.

Young noted that different styles of type will produce letters of different heights, even if they are all printed in 14-point type.

"It strikes me that there's a lot of uncertainty here," he said.

Hundreds of people arrived in Lansing by bus and car to attend the proceedings. Those interviewed this morning said Stand up for Democracy collected more than 200,000 valid signatures -- about 40,000 more than required -- and it would be a travesty if the ballot initiative to repeal the law was not allowed to go forward.

Another group, Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, has challenged the font size used on part of the petition, arguing it does not match the font size required under state law..

The State Board of Canvassers deadlocked on the issue in a 2-2 vote. The Michigan Court of Appeals next ruled the question should go on the ballot, based on a legal precedent about petitions that are "substantially compliant" with state law.

Justice Stephen Markman hit on that point while grilling attorney John Pirich, attorney for Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility.

"We've been living, I think, more or less in a substantial compliance world since 2001, at least," Markman said.

"Why is it fair to revisit that and to recreate the world in the context of this case?

Pirich said the law requires that the print be exactly compliant, and in this case it clearly was not.

f the ballot initiative is approved, the emergency manager law will be suspended until voters decide the issue.

"You're talking about folks' voting rights," said Melvin Brabson, an official with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 25 and former city recreation worker who drove from Detroit to watch the hearing.

"If the people don't have a voice, then democracy is a lie."

Virginia Chester. who helps run an auto repair shop in Muskegon, also drove to Lansing for the hearing.

"Regardless of what you feel about the emergency manager law, there's a democratic process," she said.

"I feel like in the last couple of years, our democracy is eroding."

Michigan has had an emergency financial manager law for troubled cities and school districts for years. But in 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder and the GOP-controlled Legislature toughened the law, including measures that allow emergency managers to scrap collective bargaining agreements under certain circumstances.

Critics say the law is anti-democratic and takes away voting rights.

Snyder argues the amended law includes "early warning systems" intended to head off the need for an emergency manager in the first place.

Benton Harbor, Flint, Ecorse and Pontiac have emergency managers, as do Detroit Public Schools and a few other school districts.

Detroit is under a consent agreement after the City Council in April narrowly approved a consent agreement that avoids an emergency manager by creating a powerful Financial Advisory Board with state appointees, among other changes.

The Michigan arm of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, a social change group, hired buses to transport opponents of the emergency manager law from Detroit and Flint.

The court is not expected to rule today.

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