Courting civil rights

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The federal legal fight over Michigan's so-called "civil rights" ballot measure may have just begun, but the public relations campaign surrounding the issue was already in full swing on the steps of the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse in Detroit last Thursday.

As reported here previously, the state's Civil Rights Commission recently issued a report saying that the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI) committed fraud during its campaign to place a proposal on November's ballot asking voters to decide whether public universities and state agencies can continue to use affirmative action practices ("Uncivil fight," MT, June 21). The report accused MCRI signature gatherers of using deception in collecting the names necessary to place the proposal on the ballot.

The civil rights group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), seeking to keep the disputed measure from going before voters, grabbed the commission's report as if it were manna dropped from heaven and raced to the courthouse. As MCRI supporters looked on, BAMN representatives filed a federal lawsuit seeking to remove the MCRI's proposal from the ballot, citing the report's findings as evidence. The suit names MCRI heads Ward Connerly and Jennifer Gratz as defendants, as well as Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land and the State Board of Canvassers.

"The proof is in," announced BAMN spokeswoman Shanta Driver, referring to the report. "We're asking for the fraud to stop now."

There was some behind-the-scenes maneuvering going on even before the two sides met in front of the courthouse for their respective press conferences. BAMN announced that Mayor Kilpatrick had been added to its roster of co-plaintiffs, acting as a private citizen.

Gratz cried foul, accusing Kilpatrick of abusing his power.

"He's using his authority to campaign against a citizen-driven initiative," said Gratz.

Detroit General Counsel Sharon McPhail, who is representing Kilpatrick in the case, disagreed. "Mayor Kilpatrick is expected to defend all city residents — that's his job," she told News Hits.

McPhail said she was there on her own time, and will handle the case for her boss pro bono unless the City Council authorizes Kilpatrick to officially represent the city as part of the suit. That request is expected to go before the council this week.

The MCRI folks then handed out a "report" of their own to the crowd of reporters. Calling the state's report "completely untrue and biased," the MCRI also claimed to have found enough discrepancies in the testimonies and affidavits given to the commission to make the commission's report too shaky to support the lawsuit.

Either way, the suit is filed and each side is waiting to see what happens next. McPhail left the conference praying the case would draw a "good" judge. Gratz was left thinking about the consequence of taking the dispute from the courthouse steps to inside the building.

"I'm sure we'll need a lawyer after today," she said.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]

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