Here are a few examples: Legislative COUP D’ETAT and GUBERNATORIAL REMOVALS.
A couple of weeks ago, The Ballenger Report reminded Michigan political junkies (and a few journalists who care) of the “nuclear options” available under the state’s constitution of impeachment, expulsion and recall for getting rid of radioactive public officials.
A deeper delve into the historical archives reveals that, at least in the past, there were some other options available to Michiganders for the same purpose, and some of those still exist today.
For those who think our current era is the most divisive period in the 183 years of Michigan political history, maybe we need to revisit events from the 1890s.
Early in the 1891 legislative session, when Republican senators left Lansing to travel by train to Detroit to attend their state political party convention, senate Democrats, assisted by third-party senators who provided them with a quorum, discharged all the pending senate election challenges from committee and voted to certify that, in all the disputed seats from the 1890 election still unresolved, the Democratic candidate had been elected. The 1850 Constitution, the 1908 Constitution and today’s 1963 Constitution in Article I, Section 16, provides that “Each house shall be the sole judge of the qualifications, elections, and returns of its members…” (a pause here — think about that!)
This gave senate Democrats majority control in the senate. For the first time since 1854 (before the Civil War!), Democrats controlled both houses of the state legislature AND the governor’s office. Democrats then passed what was called “The Miner Law” (named after Detroit state Rep. John Miner) to allocate Michigan’s presidential electoral college votes based on the presidential vote in each Congressional district. Armed with this unique advantage, Democratic Presidential nominee Grover Cleveland would win five out of Michigan’s 14 electoral college votes in 1892. That helped Cleveland gain a second term (the only time a president has ever served “split terms” in the White House). Those 1892 election results were a big improvement for Cleveland over the ZERO electoral votes Cleveland received from Michigan in 1888, when, nationally, Cleveland won the popular vote but lost in the electoral college to Benjamin Harrison (just like Al Gore in 2000 compared with George W. Bush, for today’s political reporters who have no clue). Michigan’s minority Republicans challenged the Miner Law in state and federal court, but the U.S. Supreme Court, with a Republican-nominated majority, upheld Michigan’s Democrat-approved law.
But then, in that same 1892 election, Republican won back control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office. So, what do you imagine would happen next? Predictably, the first action of the GOP-dominated 1893 legislature was to repeal the Miner Law. That is why, ever since the 1896 presidential election, Michigan has awarded all its electoral college votes to the winner of the statewide vote.
Next, in 1894, Republican Governor John T. Rich (from Lapeer County) removed three officials of his own party elected statewide for gross neglect of duty (Secretary of State John W. Jochim, State Treasurer Joseph F. Hambitzer, and State Land Commissioner John G. Berry). You think the Board of State Canvassers is dysfunctional today? That body, the way it was constituted by the 1850 Constitution, was even worse — that charter provided that those three elected state officials would serve collectively as the Board of State Canvassers. Governor Rich in 1894 held a hearing on the allegation that those three public officials falsified county election returns to show that a constitutional amendment raising state public officials’ pay (including their own) had passed in a statewide referendum when, later, an accurate canvass of county returns established that the proposal had been, in fact, defeated. The Michigan Supreme Court upheld the governor’s removals. The constitutional provision permitting the governor to remove state officials when the legislature was not in session also originated in the 1850 Constitution (Article XII, Section 8). Removing those elected state officers vacated those elected offices, which also triggered another constitutional provision, still in effect in the 1963 Constitution, giving the governor the authority to fill elected state officer vacancies by appointment.
This gubernatorial substitute for legislative impeachment was reiterated in the 1908 constitution and was used by Governor Alex Groesbeck in November 1926 to remove State Superintendent of Public Instruction Thomas E. (Tom) Johnson. The state school superintendent was at the time a statewide elected office, and continued to be so through the end of 1964. Gov. Groesbeck may have taken that removal action in revenge after Groesbeck had been defeated in the Republican gubernatorial primary several months earlier by Fred Green of Ionia Co. Johnson had often clashed with Groesbeck on the State Administrative Board over Groesbeck’s requests for state highway spending (it doesn’t seem likely that would happen today). Groesbeck, now a lame duck governor weeks from leaving office, found that Johnson was receiving more than $1,500 in federal funds as compensation for his service as executive director of the state vocational school system as well as the $5,000 state salary Johnson was receiving as state Superintendent of Public Instruction. This alleged “double dipping” by Johnson was found to be corrupt by Governor Groesbeck. The Michigan Supreme Court later upheld Johnson’s removal. Today, under the 1963 Constitution, the state school chief is no longer an elected office. The elected eight-member State Board of Education appoints the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, whose salary is currently $204,000.
For that matter, the state Land Commissioner was removed as a statewide elected office in 1914, and the state Treasurer lost the same status with the adoption of the current 1963 Constitution.
The 1963 Constitution has retained this gubernatorial power to remove public officials. Most recently, former Governor John Engler raised concerns that Wayne State University Governor John Kelly (a former Democratic state senator), who had been elected statewide, had a possible conflict of interest with his employment by the Detroit Medical College, then affiliated with WSU. Just over a decade ago, ex-Governor Jennifer Granholm held a removal hearing in September 2008 on Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (also a former Democratic state legislator) on corruption allegations. Kelly and Kilpatrick both resigned their public offices before either Engler or Granholm took steps to remove them.
Some contend former Governor Rick Snyder could have used his removal power found in Article V, Section 10, of the current constitution to clean house and remove for neglect of duty up to eight Michigan State University trustees when the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal exploded in 2017, but Snyder never took such action.
Ed Haynor says
The subject of history is always good, although we never seem to learn from it.
John A. Smietanka says
Where in the world do you get this stuff, Bill, especially the back stories that aren’t contained in the dusty tomes in the State Library (if they have dust on their tomes)?
Very interesting… There is truly nothing new under the sun, despite people attacking their enemies or promoting their books who use fiery adjectives and adverbs describing their conspiracy theories.
I propose that, for news articles, not opinion pieces, writers must be limited to one adjective and one adverbs per page. I would triple that quota for the op-eds.
John A. Smietanka says
Sorry for the extra “s” in the last paragraph. It has been a busy day and my fingers are jumping ahead.
Larry Kestenbaum says
The Legislature amended the recall law a few years ago (PA 417 of 2012), throwing up new roadblocks and shortening time for petitions, to make it almost impossible to recall any official above the local level.
I am still hopeful that law will be struck down. Former state election director Chris Thomas predicted that it would “collapse like a house of cards” if challenged. So far, though, that has not happened.
With the recall option hobbled, perhaps we will see renewed attention to the gubernatorial power to remove officials.
Timothy Sullivan says
“Some contend former Governor Rick Snyder could have used his removal power found in Article V, Section 10, of the current constitution to clean house and remove for neglect of duty up to eight Michigan State University trustees when the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal exploded in 2017, but Snyder never took such action.”
The current governor can deal with the MSU Board of Trustees. And should. They have become an embarrassment. And start with Byrum.
Wayne State University is another issue as their Board of Governors are trying to emulate MSU. The issues are the school President (should he stay or go), whatever is going on with the medical school (who are they affiliated with and accreditation issues) and the school’s overall dysfunctional governance. Governor Whitmer will have to figure out which faction she supports at WSU and act.
She’d have to purge a bunch of Democrats, but it would show she is serious about governance.
Now if she weren’t hostile to whistleblowers……
Keith G. Harrison says
Thank you for taking the time to do the research and piece on Michigan’s historical politics. I only wish that other political commentators, newspaper editors, politicians, and especially news reporters in general would do the same prior to expounding on state and federal current affairs with such designations as the “worst” or “best” since time immemorial. History and the concept of historical context tends to be relegated by many in such positions well below such more exotic concepts expediency and the spectacular.
Again, thank you. It was refreshing to read.
Kyle Melinn says
Great stuff, Bill. Thanks for posting.
Although not mentioned in either of your posts, there is another option: removal of judges (only) by what is sometimes called “legislative address” under Article VI, § 25 of the Michigan Constitution. As far as I know, this has only been tried once, under the parallel provision of the Constitution of 1835 (Art VIII, § 3), against Justice George Morell in 1837.