Detroit Sugar Law Lead Attorney Tony Paris: Emergency Manager Law Suppresses Democracy
On Tuesday, Michigan voters will cast a “yay” or “nay” for Proposal 1, upholding or rejecting one of the state’s most controversial laws. Public Act 4, the emergency manager law is up for debate after a coalition called Stand Up For Democracy amassed over 200,000 signatures to put a referendum for the existing law on the ballot.
Leading the charge to have the referendum certified for the ballots was Tony Paris, the lead attorney for Detroit’s Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center. Sugar Law is a national non-profit organization that specializes in providing legal support and advocacy for working people and their communities.
While Paris normally focuses on workers’ rights, especially plant closings, mass layoffs, unemployment insurance benefits and wage actions, he’s represented Stand Up For Democracy and the PA 4 opposition, and helped shepherd the referendum from the first lawsuit on, even through an absurd challenge that sought to disqualify the petitions based on font size.
HuffPost Detroit asked Paris to explain his perspective on PA 4, the state’s challenge to the democratic rights of Michigan residents and how growing up in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn helped inspire him to the work he’s doing today.
What has Sugar Law’s role been in challenging PA 4 and helping the referendum be certified on the ballot in November?
Our role in challenging PA 4 began with the filing of the lawsuit Brown, et al. v. Snyder, et al. on behalf of 28 Michigan citizens back in June 2011. This lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of PA 4 on its face and in how it’s been implemented.
Also, in the wake of a statewide coalition obtaining over 225,000 petition signatures supporting a referendum to repeal PA 4, we’ve also supported efforts to have the referendum certified and on the ballot. This has involved legal struggles with the state Board of Canvassers, the Michigan Court of Appeals, and the Michigan Supreme Court.
What’s your main argument against Michigan using PA 4 to place emergency managers or consent agreements in schools and municipalities? Do you object to the entire law, or to specific parts of it?
There are numerous non-legal arguments against PA 4, some of which I speak to in my answers below. As far as our legal challenge goes, our main arguments are that:
PA 4 suspends local democratic government, by giving EMs the sole power to repeal local laws, ordinances, charters and contracts.
PA 4 suspends home rule by effectively eliminating citizens’ right to vote for, and petition, local government on matters of local concern.
PA 4 violates the separation of powers, by allowing the executive branch and its agencies to exercise legislative duties.
PA 4 allows the Legislature to enact unfunded mandates, by using local taxpayer dollars for such purposes as EM’s salaries and staff.
Proponents of Public Act 4 say that municipalities and school districts in fiscal crisis are handcuffed in their efforts to relieve themselves of debt without the powers the law grants emergency managers. If PA 4 is defeated, how do you think that cities and school districts should avoid insolvency?
Please remember that the state constitution isn’t a handcuff. Our government’s separation of powers isn’t a handcuff. The right to a democratic form of local government isn’t a handcuff. We shouldn’t suspend the things we allegedly believe when times are tough and the idea of a dictator, even a benevolent dictator, is pretty counter-intuitive to American values. We need to care about the means and process as much as the ends. We can appreciate the notion that during hard economic times we may all have to have shared sacrifice. But that has to be shared. By the bondholders, by the banks, and not just by government workers and local residents.
One quick example, Section 18 of the law provides that EMs must maintain local services “within the resources available.” The very next sentence requires “payment in full of the scheduled debt service requirements on all bonds, notes and municipal securities.” So while services have to depend on revenues, debt service waits for no man. Wall Street bankers lose nothing … and may even gain public assets. While workers and residents pay more every day.
But overall, your question is one we all should be asking — what type of local government would we like to see and that we can fight to make happen. Because even Pontiac’s former EM Michael Stampfler has admitted that Public Act 4 does not work. He’s been quoted as saying, “I do not believe EMs can be successful. They abrogate the civic structure of the community for a period of years then return it virtually dismantled for the community to attempt to somehow make a go of it. The program provides no structure for long-term recovery, and that is why most communities slide back into trouble, if they experience any relief at all — a vicious cycle.”
Further, as many people are aware, the previous law PA 72 (passed in 1990) dealt with emergency financial managers. However, emergency managers under Public Act 4 wield powers that reach far beyond just finances. They can unilaterally tear up union contracts, take over pension funds, make and repeal laws, sell public assets, the list goes on. Now, I’d imagine that even if PA 72 is properly ruled as repealed if PA 4 is (it was repealed when PA 4 was passed), that the state legislature will still pass another law and hopefully this time they’ll stay within the limits of the constitution.
Does the referendum for Public Act 4 represent, to you, a fight for democracy? Or something else?
We at Sugar Law are very concerned that this “manager” model will spread to other states. This model where the so-called solution to budget problems at the expense of workers and residents. Unfortunately, we’ve already seen this begin and in a way, what happens with Michigan’s law will serve as a potential model for other states to try. Imposition of the EM must be understood in the context of the many other methods conservatives are using today to suppress democracy –- especially among people of color and people in poverty.
The reality is that the crisis results from decades of financial deregulation, policies transferring wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy. Regardless of varying levels of failures on behalf of local officials … the burdens of inadequate investment, employment, education, health care, law enforcement, housing, tax policy, insurance red-lining and transportation are far more the cause. And, we can’t be naïve enough to think that if and when things get better in Michigan, then our public unions, our public assets, and our public spaces are just going to be given back to us. They may be lost forever.
The Stand Up For Democracy coalition amassed over 200,000 signatures in order to have the referendum placed on the ballot. Did you think that was possible? Why do you think so many voters are in favor of it?
This is an issue with the potential to affect every local government in the state and we are approaching upwards of one million Michigan citizens that are under an PA 4 emergency manager or PA 4 consent decree (over half of the state’s African-American population) without local democratic rights and without a way to hold the people making decisions over their lives accountable. All of the community input, involvement, and checks and balances … from things as simple as block clubs to our participation at the city council and school board level, can all become and remain futile with Public Act 4. The things that we’re taught in school about a government of, for, and by the people and that we should have a say in how we are governed, all go out the door.
We think so many people supported the referendum drive, because people from across the spectrum of race, class, and political parties share at least one value in common –- that we have a right to a democratically-elected government and that is not something that should be taken away, even in difficult times.
The petition was challenged in State Supreme Court on the basis of font size. As an attorney, did you ever think you’d see typeface debated in a court of law? Why do you think opponents to the referendum chose that approach?
I never thought that I would see font size debated in court of law over the absurd assertion that the title of the petitions was less than the width of a dime smaller than what opponents said they should be. Even more absurd, opponents acknowledged that the petitions were in the correct font size, but that only fonts existing at the time of printer’s used old printer blocks before computers could be used on petitions. It’s a bit surreal and would have had stifling results for the petition process in future elections. Think about all the resources and time that went into that challenge … it very much reflects the hypocrisy of some “small government” and “limited judiciary” conservatives within our state. At least the process helped to expose that hypocrisy.
Tell me about your background as an attorney in Detroit, and how your personal experiences have led you to the kind of work that you do.
I guess a lot of it stems from the fact that I’ve grown-up and lived around so many hard-working people who were actually the ones that didn’t just up and leave their city when things got hard. They were actually the ones who chose to stay and fight to try and make things better and to try and deal with the problems. These people did not cause the problems these cities are facing and after it all, they are rewarded with their vote being taken away? They are rewarded with their tax dollars used to fund an EM that they did not elect and that they cannot hold accountable? Taxation without representation … I read about that somewhere. Meanwhile, the forces that actually caused this mess get to now come back and take over and pick clean the rest of what they left behind … all while blaming the victims and having their foxes get to guard the hen house.