The petition to end race-conscious policies in Michigan is
technically invalid, a state circuit court judge ruled yesterday.
Paula Manderfield, an Ingham County judge struck down a decision by
the State Board of Canvassers, which approved the petition. But
MCRI, the petition’s sponsor, plans to overlook the decision
and will continue to collect signatures.

The Michigan Civil Rights Initiative is waging a campaign to end
“preferences based on race, ethnicity and sex” in
public education, employment and contracting. It needs 317,757
signatures by July 6 in order to place the question about amending
the state constitution on November’s ballot.

The ruling invalidated MCRI’s petitions, which it has been
circulating since mid-January, by stating that the board was
incorrect to approve the petition form last December. Manderfield
said the petition must state the article of the constitution that
MCRI’s amendment would alter.

It is still unclear what effect the court’s order will
have on the campaign. MCRI campaign manager Tim O’Brien said
the group will not alter its petition form and urged all
circulators to continue petitioning. BAMN, which is a plaintiff in
the case, and its lawyers say MCRI will eventually have to redo
their petitions to comply with the court’s decision, which
could slow down its campaign.

Officials from the Attorney General’s office, which
represented the board in the case, have yet to examine the decision
but will soon consult their client, spokesman Matt Davis said.
Since the lawsuit was against the board and not MCRI, the
responsibility to appeal rests on Attorney General Mike Cox.

The case, litigated by the law firm Scheff and Washington,
concerns a formatting issue, although the initiative’s
opponents say the issue concerns the petition’s content as
well. The plaintiffs argued and the judge concurred that petition
forms to amend the state constitution must include the section of
the constitution they intend to alter or override, and they must
say so on the forms.

“If you try to amend the constitution, you have to say
so,” BAMN attorney George Washington said. BAMN was joined by
United for Equality and Affirmative Action, the Michigan
Legislative Black Caucus and two local chapters of the American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The back of the current petition form already states it is a
“proposal to amend the constitution,” but it does not
include the article in the constitution it will amend.

Manderfield said the existing provision in the constitution
“is blatantly in direct conflict with the new proposed
(amendment)” and that MCRI’s amendment “boldly
regurgitates language of an existing section, with moderate
modifications.”

While MCRI claims this is a technical issue that does not affect
its campaign, opponents say the constitutional language was
deliberately omitted in order to deceive the public. If MCRI
included the wording of the amendment, this would compel them to
acknowledge that the constitution already guarantees equal
protection under the law, opponents say.

Manderfield wrote in her decision that MCRI “has made no
secret about what the ultimate goal is in seeking this
amendment.” The purpose of the initiative, she said, was
“in essence to ‘undo’ what the U.S. Supreme Court
did in upholding certain protections guaranteed by the Equal
Protection Clause.”

MCRI has continually contended that such legal assessments are
outside the jurisdiction of the board, which should only rule on
technicalities, such as font size and formatting. “The judge
is absolutely and completely wrong about this,” said
O’Brien, who acknowledged he had not consulted with lawyers
from MCRI or the Attorney General’s office since the
decision.

But Manderfield said even though the members of the board are
not constitutional lawyers, “the question before the State
Board of Canvassers in this matter simply did not require an
analysis that was beyond the board’s authority or
qualifications to act upon.”

The intent of the provision requiring petitions to include the
section of the constitution it could change is to guarantee an
informed electorate. The omission of this information means
petition signers are misinformed, Manderfield said.

The decision could complicate MCRI’s campaign if it has to
restart its initiative. The group recently announced it will need
400,000 to 425,000 signatures by June 15, significantly more than
the prescribed amount.

Since most campaigns receive a large number of invalid
signatures — mostly from unregistered voters — the
extra time and signatures will provide a necessary buffer. Campaign
officials have expressed concern about the success of the
initiative, primarily because the group needs more funding.

But despite the decision, MCRI is undeterred. O’Brien said
that going to the board in December was only a formality. A ruling
ordering the board to change its decision “means
nothing,” he said. He added that the decision is
“premature” because the signatures have not yet been
submitted.

“There is no step anywhere in this process where someone
is even required to go to the board of state canvassers to seek
approval,” he said.

MCRI is unsure whether it will change its petition form. While
Washington and BAMN said the initiative would have to change its
form in order to get the issue on the ballot, O’Brien said
that this was “hypothetical.”

Before the issue reaches the ballot in November — provided
MCRI obtains enough signatures — the board will have to judge
the petition form, Washington said. MCRI will have to change the
petition if it wants its campaign to survive.

But MCRI may not pursue this route. “We’re not going
to do anything except assure our people to continue
petitioning,” O’Brien said.

For BAMN, the court’s decision was a victory for civil
rights. MCRI is propagating a deceptive petition drive that seeks
to undo years of affirmative action legislation, BAMN members
said.

“(The petitions) were a conscious deception around the
equal protection clause,” BAMN national co-chair Luke Massie
said.

The group has faced other challenges during its petition drive.
MCRI officials estimate that the total campaign will cost $4
million, so the group is now soliciting supporters across the state
for funding. MCRI officials also said the weather has partially
curtailed their ability to obtain signatures over the past two
months.

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