GOP clash with Whitmer comes in little-known Court of Claims

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — All three branches of government that we all learned about in school will be in play in a Lansing courtroom Friday: Michigan’s legislative branch is suing the executive and asking the judicial to make a decision.

The Republican-led Legislature is seeking to curtail Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s power to issue executive orders over objections to how she is handling the coronavirus outbreak. It’s likely to be the first step in a power struggle between legislative leadership and the governor.

The lawsuit will first be handled in a court setting that rarely makes the news: the Michigan Court of Claims.

“The Court of Claims in the state of Michigan is the court of original jurisdiction for matters brought against the state of Michigan or any of its agents,” explained Mark Dotson, a legal author and professor at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School.

He said the Friday hearing will decide the case, at least for now.

The Republicans who control both chambers of Michigan’s Legislature are asking the court to declare “invalid and unenforceable” Whitmer’s executive orders that closed or curtailed business operations and told residents to stay at home except for life-sustaining activities.

The GOP lawmakers claim Whitmer has overstepped her authority in the repeated extensions of measures meant to stem the spread of COVID-19.

On behalf of the governor, Assistant Solicitor General Christopher Allen argues in papers filed before the court that the actions of the legislators would undermine public health. The governor’s attorneys go on to argue that the legislators have no standing to file such a suit, and that her powers are enshrined in the state constitution in laws from 1945 and 1976 that allowed for a speedy response to a public health emergency.

This is a more narrow case than the one brought last month that challenged whether Whitmer had the constitutional authority to curtail business operations at all and was tossed by a Court of Claims judge.

The Michigan Nurses Association has filled a brief of support on behalf of Whitmer, while the conservative free-market policy influencer Mackinac Center is siding with the GOP.

“What a Court of Claims would do is resolve the dispute just like a normal circuit court would that would empanel a jury,” Dotson said.

Proceedings will happen at the Michigan Hall of Justice, which is also home to the state Supreme Court. Judge Cynthia Stephens, a third-term State Court of Appeals judge originally appointed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm and seated on the Court of Claims in 2015, will preside.

Whatever the outcome, it is unlikely it will bring an immediate end to the executive orders.

“If the court rules against her tomorrow, she will appeal and ask for a stay and there probably will be a request that will be granted for the stay,” Dotson said. “There’s going to be an appeal tomorrow regardless of what happens.”

Even if the courts expedite the process, it will likely be the state Supreme Court that ultimately decides.

The hearing starts at 10 a.m. Friday. You’ll be able to watch a livestream from the court here.

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