Petitioners in the effort to recall embattled state Rep. Larry Inman (R-Williamsburg) have a good chance to get their rebuff by the Secretary of State’s elections division overturned in court.
There are at least two recent cases that tell us why.
Last week, state election officials rejected the petitions circulated to recall Inman on the grounds that one word was dropped and another misspelled from the petition language that had earlier been approved by the Board of State Canvassers. Petitioners in the Traverse-City based 104th state House district angrily replied that the mistakes were “harmless” and had no effect on the willingness of signatories to affix their John Hancocks to the petitions. Petition organizers said they would appeal the state’s decision to the Michigan Court of Appeals.
Inman has been accused of of three felonies — attempted extortion, solicitation of some $30,000 in bribes from the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters & Millwrights, and making a false statement to the FBI about his role in the run-up to a vote in 2018 on repealing the state’s prevailing wage law. He is now on trial in federal court, and a verdict is expected long before the Jan. 10, 2020, deadline for certifying candidates for the March 10 primary ballot. He has refused to resign from the Legislature despite being banned from the House GOP caucus, being stripped of his office staff, and bearing the stigma of a House resolution that he should give up his seat. However, the House has not moved to expel him.
Do Inman and his attorneys really have a chance to avoid an election to recall him? It may look that way now, but two court decisions in the past four decades have overturned state election officials’ rulings that were made on narrow technical grounds that would have prevented voters from being able to pass judgment on, in one case, a ballot proposal and, in the other, a candidacy for the U.S. Senate.
It all comes down to what is deemed by a court to be more important — “substantial compliance” by the petitioners with the law, or “strict conformity” to the exact wording of the controlling statute.
Just seven years ago, the state Supreme Court, in a narrow 4-3 vote, upheld the language on petitions to force a statewide referendum on what was Proposal 4 of 2012, the state’s updated “Emergency Manager” law. A group called Michigan Citizens for Financial Responsibility had challenged the petitions on the grounds that part of the petition language had been printed in the wrong “font” size. The Board of State Canvassers deadlocked on the issue, 2-2. The referendum petitioners appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which ruled affirmatively that the minor error in type size was not sufficient to deny the Michigan electorate the right to vote on a referendum as to whether the new law should take effect (the number of signatures was never in question). On another appeal to the state’s high bench, the jurists decided, by a single vote, that “substantial compliance” was more important. In the November, 2012, general election, voters gave their verdict: Proposal 4 struck down the emergency manager law (approx. 53%-47%).
Then there was the case of former Congressman Philip Ruppe (R-Houghton), running for the GOP nomination to the U.S. Senate (and the right to oppose Democratic incumbent Don Riegle) way back in 1982.
State law said that a candidate, in submitting his petitions of candidacy to the state, had to sign an affadavit of identity. But Ruppe’s campaign workers scrambled to submit Ruppe’s petitions 15 seconds before the filing deadline on June 8, 1982, with the candidate nowhere in Lansing. His campaign manager forged Ruppe’s signature and then had it notarized by a Capitol employee whose Notary Public commission had long since expired. Then-state Elections Director Chris Thomas opined he didn’t think that should disqualify Ruppe from the August primary ballot, and neither did Attorney General Frank Kelley. But the Board of State Canvassers couldn’t muster the three votes to allow Ruppe’s candidacy to go forward, splitting 2-1. Ruppe appealed the state’s action to both the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. The high bench then ruled that Ruppe’s petitions were in “substantial compliance” with the law. Ruppe went on to win the Republican nomination but then got blown out by Riegle in the general election.
So, in Inman’s case, which will it be? “Substantial compliance,” which in this instance seems obvious, or the more rigid “strict conformity?” State law has been slightly altered since 1982 and 2012 in both cases, but some things never change — it will get down to “judicial discretion.”