ACLU, unions sue state over right-to-work law

By Matthew Jackonen, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 31, 2013

On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and a group of labor unions have asked a state judge Thursday to review Michigan’s controversial right-to-work law that passed through the stat legislature at the end of 2012.

Rana Elmir, communications director of the Michigan ACLU, wrote in a statement that the law should be struck down because the public was barred from the state Capitol during its enactment. He claims that this was a violation of the Open Meetings Act, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the state's Constitution.

The Open Meetings Act is a sunshine law meant to improve government transparency and provide citizens with access to the meetings of certain officials. The lawsuit focuses on finding fault in the process by which the legislation was passed rather than the right-to-work law itself, which does not allow paying union dues to be a condition of any workplace.

On Dec. 6, Elmir alleges Capitol’s doors were locked in order to limit observation of the debates on the right-to-work legislation. The suit argues that the galleries overlooking the floor of the Capitol were intentionally stuffed with legislative staff in order to prevent the public and many members of the press from entering.

“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,” the group's statement said.

The suit asserts that barring the public from entering the chamber demonstrated a suspicious attempt to pass the bill without public commentary. Elmir assailed the lack of legislative accountability during the legislature’s lame-duck session as well as the law's provisions that make it immune to a statewide referendum.

An Ingham County circuit judge ruled in December that state police were within their legal rights to lock down the capitol. However, the judge did say the constitution requires that an effort be made to open the Capitol as much as possible.

Kurt Weiss, a spokesperson for Gov. Rick Snyder, declined to comment on the filing of the suit.

“While we are not commenting specifically on this pending litigation, the governor believes Michigan is on the right track and that we will keep moving forward by working together,” Weiss said.

State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) said the actions taken to prevent people from entering the Capitol are “unprecedented.”

“It raised some serious alarms with anyone who cares about democracy, openness and government,” Irwin said. “The strongest claims to the case revolve around those concerns … The Capitol has never been locked down before in my lifetime until just last December.”

Irwin added that it would be difficult for the lawsuit to pass through the courts because of the current mix of judges. If the case reached the Michigan Supreme Court, it would face a conservative majority.

“The courts are very renascent, naturally, to get in the legislature’s way,” Irwin said.

Irwin said the issue is too politically divisive in nature to be impartially considered by judges.

“One of the reasons it’s going to be a challenge is this whole issue is 100-percent political,” Irwin said. “Even if you get in there and find some good claims … that (the actions) are really anti-democratic and maybe even illegal, it’s going to be hard for the judges to make that judgment call on whether those issues are important enough to overturn the law because it (the law) serves their interests.”