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Economy & competitive position/Public sector

Right to Work bills revamp how courts handle challenges to them

In September, an Ingham County Circuit Court judge ruled against a state law backed by Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican legislative majority to require state employees to make an additional payment to their pension plan.

It’s not the first time that an Ingham County judge has ruled against the state as part of that court’s role as the Court of Claims.

But with their bid to make Michigan the 24th Right to Work state, Republican leaders don’t plan to let the Ingham County court get in the way.

Provisions in Senate Bill 116 and House Bill 4003 bypass the Ingham County court, giving original jurisdiction on key sections of the Right to Work law to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

An attorney Bridge consulted described that arrangement as “not common … but it’s not as though it never happens. … I can only think of one other statute that does that. And that was the one to incorporate the Mariners’ Church of Detroit.”

Bridge reached out to the law schools at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University for perspective on the jurisdiction question. Neither school, however, could offer a faculty member with a state law focus who could speak on the record regarding the issue.

Gil Seinfeld, who focuses on federal law at U-M, did say that, “As a matter of federal law, skipping over trial courts is highly unusual.”

He noted that trial courts and appellate courts have two different functions. Trial courts are collectors and arbiters of fact, whereas appellate courts are designed to review questions of law.

“Trial courts call witnesses and can have juries, depositions … the whole process of fact development takes place in trial court. All of that is typically absent in appellate court,” Seinfeld said.

UPDATE: Marcia McBrien, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Supreme Court, said via email that when the Court of Appeals is asked to perform this role, it “usually refers such a case to a circuit court, agency or other tribunal to take proofs and make findings of fact.”

While technically nonpartisan, judges in Michigan are elected – and the nature of the electorate for various court differs.

For example, Ingham County is one of Michigan’s most Democratic counties. In November, President Obama won 63 percent of the votes in Ingham, compared to 54 percent statewide.

The 24-member Court of Appeals is elected via four districts statewide.

The Michigan Supreme Court did not have statistics on how often appellate courts had overruled the Ingham Circuit Court, as of post time.

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