The Michigan Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a judge lacked the authority in 2021 to indict GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder, Snyder’s former health director and seven others on charges related to the Flint water crisis.
The Michigan Legislature had once amended laws to authorize judges to issue indictments, but removed that authority several years later, according to the court’s unanimous 6-0 ruling.
Snyder had been charged with two misdemeanor counts of willful neglect of duty in January 2021, to which he pleaded not guilty.
In a scathing statement on Tuesday, Snyder’s legal team applauded the court’s new ruling while claiming that Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office “egregiously mishandled these cases from the beginning.”
“These prosecutions of Governor Snyder and the other defendants were never about seeking justice for the citizens of Flint,” the statement reads. “Rather, Attorney General Nessel and her political appointee Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud staged a self-interested, vindictive, wasteful, and politically motivated prosecution.”
Snyder’s legal team said it will be moving immediately to dismiss all charges against Snyder based on Tuesday’s ruling.*
It has been eight years since Flint’s water source was switched to the Flint River while under emergency management during Snyder’s administration. The switch was made without applying corrosion inhibitors.
The result was widespread lead contamination in the majority-Black city’s drinking water, a significant outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease and long-term consequences for thousands of children exposed to lead in the water.
Tuesday’s ruling comes as a significant defeat for Nessel’s office. The Democrat set out years ago to set up a new team following the troubled investigation led by her predecessor, Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, and properly investigate whether crimes were committed during the height of the crisis.
“The prosecution team is reviewing the opinion from the court,” Nessel spokesperson Lynsey Mukomel told the Advance.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Hammoud emphasized that “these cases are not over.”
“Public commentary to the contrary is presumptive and rash,” Hammoud said, adding that the department understands the court’s opinion to mean that charges could be filed at the district court and include a preliminary examination.
“We still believe these charges can and will be proven in court,” she continued. “…We are prepared and determined to prove the allegations against the defendants in court and are committed to seeing this process through to its conclusion.”
At the request of Nessel’s office, the cases against Snyder and numerous others involved were handled by a “one-man grand jury.” Genesee Circuit Court Judge David Newblatt accordingly considered the evidence behind doors, then issued indictments against the defendants.
But according to the Michigan Supreme Court, state laws only authorize a judge acting in this unique circumstance to “investigate, subpoena witnesses, and issue arrest warrants.”
Therefore, the indictments against Snyder, former Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Director Nick Lyon and others are invalid.
The challenge was originally filed by Lyon last year.
It remains unclear why Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy recommended using the extremely rare, century-old practice of the one-judge grand jury in the case. The practice is often used to protect witnesses who can testify in secret.
“It seems that the power of a judge conducting an inquiry to issue an indictment was simply an unchallenged assumption, until now,” the Tuesday ruling reads.
Lyon and Dr. Eden Wells, former DHHS chief medical executive, had both been charged with involuntary manslaughter for nine deaths related to Legionnaires’ disease. Also charged were: Richard Baird, former transformation manager and senior adviser for Snyder; Jarrod Agen, former senior aide to Snyder; former Flint Emergency Managers Gerald Ambrose and Darnell Earley; former Flint Public Works chief Howard Croft; and Nancy Peeler, former manager of DHHS’ early childhood health section.
All three cases decided on by the court Tuesday were remanded back to the Genesee Circuit Court “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
Originally published June 28 by Michigan Advance. It is republished with permission.