LANSING - Even state prisoners have civil rights, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
In a 2-1 opinion, the court ruled that a 1999 amendment that excluded prisoners from coverage under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act is unconstitutional.
The ruling means a lawsuit brought by hundreds of state prisoners who allege they were sexually abused by older inmates while held in state prisons can proceed. But the ruling would also have wider implications, if it survives a possible challenge to the Michigan Supreme Court.
Judge Kirsten Frank Kelly, joined by Judge William Murphy, ruled that the Michigan Constitution — which trumps statutes passed by the Legislature — is clear in saying that "no person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws."
That includes prisoners, wrote Kelly, who also said that governmental immunity is not a defense to claims made under the state's civil rights law.
"We are reviewing the decision," said Andrea Bitely, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Schuette, whose office is representing the Michigan Department of Corrections in the case.
The suit, first brought in Washtenaw County Circuit Court by Ann Arbor attorney Deborah LaBelle in 2013, has a long and complicated history. Initially, seven unidentified male prisoners alleged that while housed with adults when they were younger than 18, they were sexually abused and harassed. The Corrections Department, the suit alleges, knew or should have known of the risks of housing them with adults.
Several other issues have already been appealed as high as the Supreme Court.
In a blistering dissent, Judge Peter O'Connell said it's his fellow judges who acted outside the scope of their authority, not the Legislature.
The state civil rights law says persons can't be discriminated against "in a place of public accommodation or public service."
The issue that the Legislature corrected in 1999 was to clarify that prisons do not provide a public service as defined under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, O'Connell wrote.
Governmental immunity should also apply, he said in his dissent.
O'Connell said Tuesday's ruling goes against prior Michigan Court of Appeals rulings and "is unprecedented in the history of this court."
LaBelle could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Legislature passed the 1999 amendment to exclude prisoners from coverage under the act after a class-action suit alleging sexual abuse of female prisoners led to a $100-million settlement with the state.
Kelly and O'Connell both have Republican connections. Murphy was appointed to the court by former Democratic Gov. James Blanchard.
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