Incumbent officeholders at the state and federal levels are rarely defeated in Michigan, but there are other ways to get rid of politicians whom the citizenry decides for various reasons they don’t like. It’s important to note, though, that they hardly ever happen.
At the local level, incumbents are often defeated. In this year’s Aug. 2 primary election, for example, four of the nine Genesee Co. commissioners were ousted at the polls. In Emmet County, all incumbent county commissioners lost.
But the last incumbent state and federal officials to suffer defeat at the ballot box in Michigan were James Blanchard for Governor in 1990; Richard Austin for Secretary of State in 1994; Spencer Abraham for U.S. Senator in 2000; Mark Schauer for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010; Alton Davis for the state Supreme Court in 2010; Laura Toy for state Senator in 2006; and Theresa Abed and Colleen Lamonte for state Representative in 2014.
However, Michigan provides other options for removing public officials besides defeat for re-election.
Recall is one of them. In fact, Michigan and Oregon were the first two states to provide for recall of elected public officials in 1908. Today, 17 other states also provide for recall of state officials.
But it’s now tougher to recall state officials than it used to be. Under amendments to Michigan’s recall law enacted in 2012, approved petition language has a shelf life of only 180 days. Signatures must be collected within a 60-day time frame within that 180-day window. The 180-day window for petition language approved by the Board of State Canvassers for Gov. Rick Snyder and state Senators Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City) and Arlan Meekhof (R-W. Olive) will soon expire.
Only three state legislators in Michigan have ever been recalled: state Senators Phil Mastin and David Serotkin, both in 1983, and state Rep. Paul Scott in 2011.
Recall under both the 1908 and 1963 Michigan Constitutions excluded judges. Impeachment was the only way to remove a sitting judge until the adoption of a constitutional amendment in 1968 creating, in Article VI, Section 30, a Judicial Tenure Commission which may recommend to the Supreme Court that a judge be censured, suspended, retired or removed from the bench.
The current (1963) Michigan Constitution, in Article IV, Section 16, provides that each legislative chamber may expel a member with concurrence of two-thirds of all members elected and serving. Four lawmakers have been expelled in Michigan history: state Rep. Milo Dakin in 1887; state Rep. Monte Geralds in 1978; state Senator David Jaye in 2001; and state Rep. Cindy Gamrat in 2015.
Most students know from their high school civics classes that only two U.S. Presidents have ever been impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives: Andrew Johnson (1868) and William Jefferson Clinton (1998). However, in the U.S. Senate, where a two-thirds vote is required to convict, neither President was removed from office.
Impeachment hasn’t been any more effective in Michigan, either. In fact, a case could be made that impeachment isn’t really much more significant than censure, in which an official can be admonished by his or her peers but still remains in office. Impeachment is more like a grand jury indictment, which does not always result in conviction.
Michigan has had four state Constitutions (1835, 1850, 1908 and 1963). Each of those Constitutions had provisions for impeachment of state officers similar to the impeachment provisions in the U.S. Constitution. Yet, in the entire history of the State of Michigan, only two state officers, one of them a judge, have ever been impeached by the Michigan House of Representatives, and only the judge was convicted. Here is that story:
The 1850 Constitution made a number of state offices elected positions, or provided that by statute they could be elected. One of those was state Land Commissioner. In 1871, the Prohibition (abstinence from alcohol) movement was influential in having the Legislature enact PA 79 of 1871, which provided that drunkenness of a public official shall be good cause for his removal from office. On March 19 of 1872, 26 citizens of the city of Lansing filed a petition with state Rep. Ira Grosvenor, a Republican from Monroe County, asking that misdemeanor charges be brought against Charles A. Edmonds, a Republican from Coldwater, who was the elected state Land Commissioner. The petition alleged that Edmonds and his office clerks were engaged in drinking, carousing and visiting places of ill repute.
Rep. Grosvenor presented the petition on March 22, 1872, to his colleagues in the state House, of whom 71 were Republicans (only 29 Democrats). That same day, a five-member Select Committee was appointed to investigate the charges in the petition. The Committee proceeded to investigate not only the drinking and whoring but also allegations of private speculation by Edmonds and his clerks, using their “inside” knowledge. Within five days, the Select Committee issued its report recommending that an impeachment motion be filed against Edmonds. The next day, March 28, the impeachment motion was passed, 79-5, in the 100-member chamber. Three House managers were then appointed to try the impeachment charges against Edmonds in the state Senate.
But then Gov. Henry Baldwin, also a Republican, threw a curve into the proceedings. He sent a message to the Legislature contending that, incredibly, no law existed under which the Senate could proceed to hold a trial of impeachment that might lead to expulsion.
In response to the Governor’s message, the House acted with lightning speed. The next day, a bill was introduced which rapidly advanced to second and third reading and was passed, 78-5. The bill was given immediate effect. In 1872, the Senate had no “five-day layover” rule as is currently found in Article V, Section 26, of Michigan’s current Constitution. Accordingly, the 32-member Senate also acted quickly, suspending the rules and passing the bill, 27-1, on March 30. Baldwin signed it. By the way, the composition of the Senate was also lopsidedly Republican — 27 GOP, just five Democrats.
Here’s another wrinkle — the 1850 Michigan Constitution provided that no impeachment trial in the Senate could commence until the final adjournment of the Legislature. As a result, the impeachment trial of Charles Edmonds did not begin until April 11, after the Legislature had adjourned sine die (they did that in the spring in those days).
Eleven articles of impeachment were leveled against Edmonds. He was charged with corruptly withholding land from sale for the benefit of certain land-dealers in return for money paid to himself and/or his deputies and clerks; engaging in the purchase of state lands sold in his office; deciding that certain lands in the possession of settlers who had failed to file their proof of settlement and occupancy with his office were subject to sale; furnishing secret information concerning such lands to land dealers in whose profits he shared; engaging in the sale of swamp-land script; appointing and keeping in his office clerks of bad habits and character and allowing those clerks to purchase land from his office and sell information to land-dealers; depositing in the state treasury swamp-land script; sending from a post office in Indiana an obscene newspaper he published that was entitled “Every Saturday Night”; and, finally, disgracing himself by drunkenness and committing adultery in the city of Lansing during his term of office.
The trial lasted until May 22, at which time the Senate voted on all 11 articles of impeachment. Edmonds was acquitted of all charges. On some charges, only one senator voted guilty. Some charges were unanimous in Edmonds’s favor, to acquit. However, on three charges a majority of senators found him guilty, but not by the two-thirds vote required to convict and remove him from office. For the curious student of history, the vote on the drunkenness charge was a unanimous “Not Guilty.” On the adultery charge, there was only one “Guilty” vote. So Edmonds survived, but only for the duration of his two-year term. Beginning in 1873, there was a new state Land Commissioner. Politically, Edmonds was never heard from again.
On impeachment, was the Edmonds brouhaha the end of things? No. Bob LaBrant, Michigan’s legendary political legal historian, has unearthed evidence that, nearly three-quarters of a century later, in 1943, one Michael E. Nolan, a Gogebic Co. probate judge, was impeached by the House for padding his expense account by charging excessive fees for marriage licenses. 722 secret marriages were performed in Gogebic County between 1938 and 1942. Judge Nolan was convicted by the Senate and removed from office in 1943 — the only time in Michigan history this ever happened.