DETROIT (AP) – The state of Michigan on Wednesday defended a law that allows the governor to send powerful emergency managers into distressed communities, dismissing claims that it illegally tramples the rights of poor, black residents whose elected officials have no authority.
The law has been a cornerstone of Gov. Rick Snyder’s efforts to fix the finances of cities and schools since his election in 2010. But it’s an extraordinary step because it puts sweeping control in the hands of one person. Detroit has been under a manager for more than a year.
Michigan voters overturned Snyder’s first emergency manager law in the 2012 election. But he and fellow Republicans in the Legislature came back with another version.
“These communities are on the brink of collapse,” Assistant Attorney General Michael Murphy told a judge.
He said the law doesn’t target blacks who live in many cities and school districts now under a manager.
“The only color we’re dealing with here is green – it’s cash,” Murphy said.
More than 75 people, mostly opponents of the law, filled a courtroom to hear arguments about whether a lawsuit seeking to overturn the law should be dismissed. There were deep sighs and laughter at times as Murphy urged U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh to dismiss the case. The judge called a time-out to find a larger courtroom.
Four attorneys on the other side took turns pointing out why the lawsuit should remain alive. They said it dilutes the voting rights of minorities and makes mayors and city councils irrelevant. Herb Sanders even likened it to slavery.
It’s a “blatant assault on democratic and constitutional rights,” lawyer Julie Hurwitz said.
There was a consensus that Steeh doesn’t have many previous legal decisions to guide him. He promised to make a decision soon.
“This case is unprecedented. This law is unprecedented,” Hurwitz said.
State-appointed emergency managers are in Detroit, Allen Park, Flint and Hamtramck, as well as in the Detroit, Muskegon Heights and Highland Park school districts. An earlier agreement in the lawsuit exempts Detroit manager Kevyn Orr from any adverse decision in the case while the city is in bankruptcy.
Murphy told the judge that a manager makes decisions that local officials ignore.
“They spend more than they take in. They can’t pay their bills. … Many times there isn’t a political will in these communities to deal with these obligations,” he said.
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