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Michigan Anti-Civil Rights Amendment Declared Unconstitutional

by John E. Dannenberg

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan declared unconstitutional a March 2000 amendment to Michigan?s Elliot-Larson Civil Rights Act (ELCRA), which had stripped prisoners from protection against discrimination. This important ruling, which is being appealed by the state, found Michigan?s zeal to declare ?open season? on discrimination against prisoners to be as fundamentally violative of the U.S.
Constitution?s Equal Protection Clause as was Colorado?s bigoted statute prohibiting any taxpayer-paid governmental effort that would protect homosexuals ? a law that was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996).

The ELCRA was originally interpreted by the Michigan Court of Appeals to include prisoners under its umbrella of protection. (See: Neal v. Michigan Dept of Corrections, 232 Mich.App. 730 (1998)). In response to Neal, the distraught Michigan Legislature amended the ELCRA in 2000 to expressly declare ?the original intent of the legislature that an individual serving a sentence of imprisonment in a state or county correctional facility is not within the purview of this act.?

The plaintiffs, female prisoners, who were supported in amicus curiae briefs by the Michigan ACLU and the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan, sued the state in federal court alleging that the amendment violated the Equal Protection Clause, was a bill of attainder, and violated international treaties. The district court first determined that ?the ELCRA is Michigan?s exclusive statutory mechanism for enforcing the Michigan constitution?s equal protection clause. Mich. Const. of 1963, Art. I, § 2.?

Analyzing the equal protection complaint, the court applied the deferential ?rational basis? level of scrutiny. Here, the burden was to show that the amendment advanced a legitimate governmental interest, even if it worked to the disadvantage of a particular group. The district court cited Romer, supra at 633: ?A law declaring that in general it shall be more difficult for one group of citizens than for all others to seek aid from the government is itself a denial of equal protection of the laws in the most literal sense.?

Michigan did not argue that the amendment to the ELCRA advanced any legitimate penological interest ? only that it saved money by deterring frivolous lawsuits. Michigan added that prisoners could still seek redress of grievances in federal court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The court found this argument missed the point, as it failed to address whether the ELCRA amendment was rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest.

Moreover, rather than just ?deterring? prisoners? (state) lawsuits, the ELCRA amendment ?completely precludes? them. Noting Michigan?s sordid history of sexual abuse of female prisoners (See: Everson v. MDOC, 391 F.3d 737 (6th Cir. 2005)), the district court found Michigan?s position ?troubling.?

The court concluded that the March 2000 amendment to the ELCRA ?denies prisoners the basic protections against discrimination that all others are afforded under Michigan law, as required by Article I, Section Two of the Michigan Constitution.? Accordingly, the district court struck down the ELCRA amendment as violative of prisoners? equal protection rights, and flatly declared it unconstitutional. The court did not need to address the plaintiffs? other claims. See: Mason v. Granholm, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 05-73943 (January 23, 2007), 2007 WL 201008.

Two months later, the district court denied the state?s request for a stay of its ruling pending an appeal to the Sixth Circuit. See: Mason v. Granholm, U.S.D.C. (E.D. Mich.), Case No. 05-73943 (March 7, 2007), 2007 WL 734990. Both decisions are unpublished.

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Related legal case

Mason v. Granholm