ACLU: Legislature purposely blocked public from right-to-work debate

Oct 30, 2014 at 12:07 pm

When the Michigan Legislature expedited right-to-work (RTW) legislation during the lame-duck session in December of 2012, it purposely prevented the public from witnessing the debate and historic vote, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

The ACLU, which filed a motion late Wednesday in Michigan's Court of Claims to ask the court to overturn the RTW laws and find that officials violated the state's Open Meetings Act, cites deposition testimony, emails, and text messages in support. The initial lawsuit was filed in 2013 on behalf of the Michigan State AFL-CIO, the Michigan Education Association, a journalist, and three Democratic state legislators. 

Never in the history of Michigan has there been such a calculated effort to deny the public access to the democratic process,” says Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, in a statement. “The lockdown of the Capitol and the stacking of the gallery during the enactment of a controversial law make a mockery of the principles of open government and transparency.”

Thousands flocked to the state Capitol to demonstrate against the right-to-work legislation, which was fast-tracked after Republican Gov. Rick Snyder — who previously said RTW wasn't "on his agenda" — flipped on the issue. The lawsuit was filed in response to the decision to lock the Capitol's doors, preventing additional people from witnessing the events transpiring inside. 

In a release, the ACLU cites a number of examples where Republican staffers were apparently asked to fill the public gallery inside the Capitol. 

For example an e-mail from Peter Langley, director of the Senate Majority Policy Office, sent on December 6, reads: "The House is having Republican staff report to the House gallery for the day — something to consider for our side."

On Dec. 10, Ralph Fiebig Jr. a House Republican constituent relations staff member, sent an e-mail inviting all constituent relations staff to meet him at the Capitol the next morning. He wrote: "I would like everyone to get there before 6:55 a.m. in case they allow us to enter before 7 a.m. That way, we may be able to get up the stairs to the gallery entrance and in the front line before the public is allowed to enter the building."

Another Republican staffer, Jennifer Kaminski, texted: "Speaker had staff go sit in the gallery this morning to take up space."

Defendants in the case have argued in court filings that Michigan's Open Meetings Act wasn't violated because "the public and lawmakers were always able to communicate with each other, media were present to report on the proceedings and temporarily locking the doors was necessary for public safety," the Detroit Free Press reports

“We should never forget the underhanded way in which the legislation was adopted,” says Patrick Devlin, secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, in a statement. “One of the most important pieces of legislation in Michigan history was adopted on a fast-track, in a lame-duck session behind closed doors without public input. It was outrageous.

You can read our cover story on the eventual passage of RTW, which makes it illegal to require employees to financially support a union as a condition of their employment, in Michigan from December of 2012 here

Check out the ACLU's amended complaint and recent filed motion below.