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MI Supreme Court says Flint defendants improperly denied right to hearing

City of Flint water tower
Ben Gordon
flickr creative commons

The Michigan Supreme Court says three former state officials should be allowed to hear and challenge the evidence the state used to indict them in a Flint water case.

Michigan’s top prosecutor will re-file charges against the defendants. Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud said Tuesday the setback dealt to the prosecution by the court won’t stop the case.

In a 6-0 ruling with one justice abstaining, the court struck down the Michigan Attorney General’s use of a one-judge grand jury to issue indictments. The decision applies specifically to three defendants, but it could affect other cases including charges filed against former Governor Rick Snyder.

The state had brought charges against former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and other state health officials. The Supreme Court said the one-person grand jury combines the roles of prosecutor and judge with no check on that authority.

The opinion written by Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack compared the one-person grand jury to a “Star Chamber comeback,” referring to medieval inquisitions. The opinion says state laws “…authorize a judge to investigate, subpoena witnesses, and issue arrest warrants. But they do not authorize a judge to issue indictments. And if a criminal process begins with a one-man grand jury, the accused is entitled to a preliminary examination before being brought to trial.”

Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud said the attorney general’s office will shift tracks and re-file the charges and schedule court appearances.

“The Citizens of Flint should know these cases are not over,” she said in a statement released by the Attorney General’s office. "We still believe these cases can and will be proven in court.”

John Bursch is the attorney for Lyon. He said the attorney general should call it quits on all the Flint prosecutions.

“It’s time for the nonsense to end,” Bursch told Michigan Public Radio. “The attorney general has wasted millions upon millions of taxpayers’ dollars and abused the public trust.”

The legal team for former Governor Rick Snyder, who is a defendant in one of the Flint water cases, said the Supreme Court decision will be used in a motion seeking to dismiss misconduct-in-office charges levelled against him.

A statement from the team called the case against Snyder “a self-interested, wasteful, and politically motivated prosecution.”

“We will be moving immediately to dismiss all criminal charges against Governor Snyder based on today’s unequivocal and scathing Supreme Court ruling," they added.

The one-judge grand jury has been more commonly used in criminal cases to address the possibility of violence against potential witnesses. Some prosecutors, including Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, said the decision creates a problem.

“In the coming days, I will be looking at pending cases in my office that may be affected by this ruling to determine how we will proceed,” she said in a statement. “In Wayne County, we have communities that are plagued by murders, drive-by shootings, and other violent crimes. The one-man grand jury has been an important way to protect witnesses who would never have come forward for fear of deadly consequences for themselves, family members, and friends.”

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.
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