Why the type size issue isn't the real point of the battle over the state’s emergency manager law.
Published: August 1, 2012
"It strikes me that there is a lot of uncertainty here," said Young.
If the current dispute had occurred back in the 1950s, when the law was written, it could have been settled definitively by having the printer bring in the block used, and it could be measured.
But now that fonts are computer-generated, and printer's blocks have gone the way of buggy whips, what's the court supposed to do?
That's the dilemma the chief justice says the court is dealing with.
But it's really a false dilemma.
Attorneys for Stand Up for Democracy — a team that includes lawyers representing the left-leaning Sugar Law Center and National Lawyers Guild along with the NAACP and organized labor — contend that, based on the computer software used to create the petition, the group has met the 14-point requirement. Beyond that, though, is established precedent that says as long as a proposed ballot measure is in "substantial compliance" with the law, then it should be allowed to go before voters so that they can have their say.
As Justice Stephen J. Markman pointed out during oral arguments, "We have been living, more or less, in a substantial compliance world since 2001 at least."
Why, he asked, is it fair to change the rules now?
Which brings us to the true heart of this matter.
Stand Up for Democracy lead attorney Herbert Sanders, in summing up his side's position in all this, told the court that this isn't really about the law. Instead, he said, it's a matter of philosophy.
Do we want this to be a state where people clearly have the ability to overturn laws passed by the Legislature, or do we want this to be a place where access to the ballot is filled with hurdles, and a dispute over something that amounts to no more than the thickness of a single dime can be used to stifle democracy?
In response to that, Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility attorney John Pirich argued that the case isn't about philosophy at all, but rather "is about the law, plain and simple."
"You suffer the consequences if you don't comply with the law," he told the court.
Interestingly, as Justice Michael F. Cavanagh points out, Pirich was arguing out of the other side of his mouth a decade ago. Cavanagh read into the record Pirich's passionate and articulate argument that nitpicky technical deficiencies shouldn't be used to deny people the right to vote.
How did Pirich explain the 180-degree turn away from that position? With the attorney seeming to be momentarily stunned by the question, Chief Justice Young leapt in (oddly, it seemed to us) providing an answer:
"Different day, different client," he offered helpfully, as some in the courtroom chuckled.
But this isn't a joke.
Fundamental principles of democracy are at stake here.
It doesn't get any more serious than that.
News Hits is written by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004.
> Email Curt Guyette