LANSING (DETROIT FREE PRESS) - The Michigan Supreme ruled today in a 4-3 opinion that the proposed repeal of the state's emergency manager should be placed on the Nov. 6 ballot.
The opinion ends a long legal fight and is a victory for opponents of the law toughened by Gov. Rick Snyder and the GOP-controlled Legislature in 2011.
It means the law will be suspended until the election once the question is certified by the State Board of Canvassers.
A group called Stand up for Democracy collected more than 200,000 valid signatures - about 40,000 more than required - to get a question on the ballot asking voters to repeal Public Act 4.
But another group, Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, has challenged the font size used in the headings on 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.
Michigan has had an emergency financial manager law for troubled cities and school districts for more than 20 years. But 2011 amendments 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.
If the question is approved for the November ballot, the emergency manager law will be suspended pending the vote. That creates some uncertainty for cities and school districts already under the control of an emergency manager, as well as for Detroit, which is one step short of an emergency manager under a recent consent agreement with the state.
Benton Harbor, Flint, Ecorse and Pontiac have emergency managers, as do Detroit Public Schools, Highland Park Schools and the Muskegon Heights School District..
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 cities of Inkster and River Rouge are also under consent agreements.
During nearly two hours of argument in front of a packed courtroom on July 25, the justices engaged in detailed debate about font styles, font sizes and printing point sizes. They noted the point size of type was once measured based on the size of the blocks in which printers inserted moveable type, but today writers choose a 14-point font size, along with a font style, by making a few clicks with a computer mouse.
One of the key questions, said Chief Justice Robert Young Jr., is whether a 14-point type generated by computer software is faithful to what used to be generated by printers. He noted the situation is further complicated because different font styles - some of which didn't even exist in the 1950s - produce different letter sizes, even when they are all printed in the same point size.
John Pirich, attorney for Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, said the law requires that the print be exactly compliant, and in this case it clearly was not.
And Stand up for Democracy had the option of submitting their petition in advance to state officials to make sure it complied with the rules, but chose not to, Pirich said.
"It's absolutely not required, and you suffer the consequences if you don't comply with the law," he said.
Herb Sanders, attorney for Stand up for Democracy, said his group has proven "unequivocally" they used the right type size.
But if justices have any doubt, they should approve the petition based on substantial compliance, he said.
To do otherwise would "deny individuals their constitutional rights based upon the width of a dime," he argued.
Detroit Free Press