DETROIT – The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and a coalition of labor unions filed a motion Oct. 29 asking a court to rule that state officials blatantly violated the Open Meetings Act when they locked the public out of the state Capitol Building in 2012 as lawmakers deliberated over the controversial right-to-work law.
The motion is based on deposition testimony, e-mails, text messages and other new evidence that reveal state officials, in addition to locking the doors of the Capitol, ordered Republican legislative staffers to occupy the gallery overlooking the floor of the House of Representatives in a deliberate attempt to prevent concerned citizens from watching the legislative sessions.
“Never in the history of Michigan has there been such a calculated effort to deny the public access to the democratic process,” said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan. “The lockdown of the Capitol and the stacking of the gallery during the enactment of a controversial law make a mockery of the principles of open government and transparency.”
The lawsuit stems from the contentious events of December 2012, when the Michigan Capitol doors were locked to prevent additional people from coming to witness or engage their legislators while the hotly contested 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 on Dec. 6, 2012, while legislators debated and voted on the bills. While individuals already in the Capitol could stay, people waiting outside were not allowed to enter.
“The state Capitol is the people’s house, and it should remain open to the public,” said Steve Cook, MEA president. “I and many others peacefully assembled. We were locked out of the Capitol that day and denied the opportunity to participate in the democratic process. Lawmakers can’t say they are all about the rule of law and then decide the rules don’t apply to them.”
In the motion, which was filed in the state Court of Claims, the coalition asks the court to invalidate the right-to-work law because of the unprecedented measures that state leaders took to exclude the public from legislative proceedings when passing the law, including directing Republican staffers to fill the House gallery in order to prevent constituents from being able to observe the debate. The motion cites deposition testimony of GOP officials and staff telling legislative staff to take vacation days and sit in the gallery in plain clothes to deny seats to those who might oppose the legislation.
For example an e-mail from Peter Langley, director of the Senate Majority Policy Office, sent on December 6, reads: “The House is having Republican staff report to the House gallery for the day — something to consider for our side.”
On Dec. 10, Ralph Fiebig Jr. a House Republican constituent relations staff member, sent an e-mail inviting all constituent relations staff to meet him at the Capitol the next morning. He wrote: “I would like everyone to get there before 6:55 a.m. in case they allow us to enter before 7 a.m. That way, we may be able to get up the stairs to the gallery entrance and in the front line before the public is allowed to enter the building.”
Another Republican staffer, Jennifer Kaminski, texted: “Speaker had staff go sit in the gallery this morning to take up space.”
According to the lawsuit, the lockout at the Capitol and stacking of the gallery compounded other methods of denying the public from having 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.
“We should never forget the underhanded way in which the legislation was adopted,” said Patrick Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council. “One of the most important pieces of legislation in Michigan history was adopted on a fast-track, in a lame-duck session behind closed doors without public input. It was outrageous.”
The lawsuit was brought under the Open Meetings Act, a state law 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 lawsuit asserts 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.
The case was filed on behalf of journalist Bonnie Bucqueroux, Steve Cook and Rick Trainor, Sen. Rebekah Warren and Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Brandon Dillon, the Michigan Education Association (MEA), Michigan State AFL-CIO, Michigan Building & Construction Trades Council, and Change to Win. They are represented by attorneys with the ACLU of Michigan, MEA, UAW, and the law firms of Pitt McGehee Palmer Rivers & Golden; White, Schneider, Young & Chiodini; and Sachs Waldman .
The case was originally assigned to Ingham County Judge William E. Collette, but it was reassigned to Judge Deborah A. Servitto, a Michigan Court of Appeals Judge sitting on the Court of Claims, after the legislature passed a law changing the way judges were assigned to hear cases against the state.