LANSING – A colation of unions and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan on Jan. 31 asked an Ingham County Circuit Court judge to strike down the state’s recently passed right-to-work law because it was enacted while the public was locked out of the state Capitol Building, in violation of the Open Meetings Act, the First Amendment and the Michigan Constitution.
The case, filed on behalf of a journalist, citizens, legislators, and unions, charges that government officials, in an unprecedented assault on democracy, deprived the public of their right to participate in the legislative process.
“Regardless of how you feel about right-to-work laws, everyone has a stake in seeing that our government conducts business in a democratic and transparent way,” said Karla Swift, President of the Michigan State AFL-CIO. “Any law passed while citizens were locked out of their capitol building should be struck down.”
The lawsuit stems from the contentious events of Dec. 6, 2012, when the Michigan Capitol doors were locked to prevent additional people from coming to witness or engage their legislators while the controversial right-to-work bills were being debated on the House and Senate floors. The public, including some journalists, were locked out for more than four hours while legislators debated and voted on the bills. While individuals already in the Capitol could stay, people waiting outside were not allowed to enter. In addition, the galleries overlooking the House floor were intentionally packed with legislative staffers so that the public would not be allowed in.
“Rushing controversial bills through a lame duck session is a bad way to make public policy under the best of circumstances; doing so on such important issues while the public is shut out of the debate every step of the way is illegal and shameful,” said Kary L. Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director. “We have a sacred right to peacefully assemble and petition our government. When there is dissent and emotions are running high, our elected leaders should encourage more open debate, not close the doors to concerned voters.”
One of those on the outside looking in was Bonnie Bacqueroux, an instructor at Michigan State University School of Journalism and the co-founder of Lansing Online News, a community publication. “The role of citizen journalists in this age of media consolidation is more important than ever in bringing the news that’s not fit to print to our communities,” she said. “I was disappointed to find myself locked out of the Capitol and unable to report on this historic event. A vibrant and free media is vital to keeping government honest.”
According to the lawsuit, the lockout at the Capitol merely added to the legislators’ attempts to swiftly pass these bills with little public input. The bills were abruptly introduced during the last days of the lame-duck legislative session, already a period of diminished public accountability. Rather than allowing the bills to go through the standard committee hearing process where the public would have been invited to comment, the right-to-work language was introduced for the first time on the House and Senate floors on the same day the bills were passed.
As further evidence of the desire to prevent the public from holding their government accountable, the lawsuit also notes the appropriations provision that was added to make the legislation referendum-proof under the Michigan Constitution.
“By allowing state police to block citizens from entering the Capitol, Lansing politicians not only violated the basic American principles of open and transparent government, they also violated specific state and federal laws designed to protect the rights of citizens,” MEA President Steven Cook said. “We’re confident the courts will agree that the Legislature’s actions on the afternoon of Dec. 6 constituted a clear violation of the Open Meetings Act and should be invalidated.”
The lawsuit does not take issue with the substance of the right-to-work law, but rather with the illegal and undemocratic process used in enacting it.
The lawsuit is being brought under the Open Meetings Act, a state law that was enacted to ensure that our government remains transparent and accountable to the public. The Open Meetings Act provides that the laws and acts of a public body may be invalidated by a court when official meetings, deliberations, or votes are held in a place that was not open and accessible to the public. In addition, the coalition, which includes the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, alleges that the closure of the Capitol prevented citizens from exercising their First Amendment right to petition the government and their right under the Michigan Constitution to instruct their representatives.