WHO IS ON THE “ DOOMSDAY LIST” TO BECOME ACTING GOVERNOR IN THE EVENT OF A DISASTER OF CATASTROPHIC PROPORTIONS?
Think about it — what if the coronavirus proves as deadly as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer contends? What if the governor herself and all the rest of the top elected officials in state government succumbed to the dreaded affliction?
Don’t worry — plans are in place, although you may not like them.
Back in 1959, at the height of the Cold War, when it was common for students to do “duck and cover” drills in preparation for a possible nuclear attack on Michigan, the GOP-dominated Legislature passed and Democratic Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams signed into law PA 202 of 1959, the Emergency Interim Succession Act.
This law provides that the governor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General each must designate five people to assume the duties of their offices and serve as emergency successors should a disaster, enemy attack or civil disorder prevent the exercise and discharge of their duties by the lawful incumbent(s).
However, only the five selected by the governor may serve as governor (MCL 31.4). If you’re on the “List of Five” for SoS or A.G., you can take over only that office as an emergency interim successor, but not governor. The statute also provides that the Senate President Pro-Tem and the Speaker of the House, in that order, should follow Lt. Gov, SoS, and AG. to become Acting Governor as a result of a catastrophic emergency.
Using that scenario, if a disaster such as COVID-19 killed the Governor, Lt. Gov, SoS, AG., Senate Pro-Tem and the House Speaker, the first person on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s list that she prepared when she took office in January, 2019, would become Acting Governor, followed by the remaining four, in order, if anything should happen to #1.
Who is #1? State Treasurer Rachel Eubanks of East Lansing The other four on the “Doomsday List,” although unelected, could become Michigan’s acting governor — #2, Former Lt. Governor John Cherry of Clio; #3, Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans of Detroit; #4, Businessman Gary Torgow of Detroit; and #5, U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow of East Lansing.
Rachel Eubanks would get no extra pay as Acting Governor if she is needed. The Act says any emergency interim successor called upon to exercise the powers and duties of the office shall receive no additional compensation except for his or her necessary and actual expenses.
Under the Act, the Legislature (if there is one) may terminate the authority of emergency interim successor at any time. An election to fill the vacancy shall be held within “one year” of the disaster which caused the emergency interim successor to become Acting Governor. Any disputes arising under PA 202 of 1959 shall be determined by whoever is exercising the powers and duties of Governor. The chief justice of the Supreme Court (assuming there still is one) shall determine all disputes regarding the office of Governor.
Keep in mind, however, that there is no doubt that Gov. Whitmer can fill vacancies in the offices of Secretary of State and Attorney General should they occur. No confirmation vote is required. That’s how Frank Kelley became A.G., eventually serving a national record 37 years in the office. Kelley was appointed in late 1961 by Gov. John Swainson to replace Paul Adams when the latter resigned to accept a Swainson appointment to the state Supreme Court.
Former state Senator Steve Bieda (D-Warren) wanted to clean up the whole succession mess, especially as it relates to Lieutenant Governor. Four years ago, Bieda introduced two Senate Joint resolutions to amend the 1963 Michigan Constitution to provide for filling a vacancy in the office of LG. To place that question on the ballot for voter approval requires a 2/3 majority in each legislative chamber. But no hearings were ever held and no votes taken on either resolution.
Bieda’s SJR P (never reintroduced by any lawmaker since he departed the Legislature) would have had the governor call a special election to fill a LG vacancy. Such an amendment could possibly restore the T. John Lesinski experience with a LG of one party and a governor of the other. Accordingly, it would never get a vote in a legislature controlled by Republicans, who wrote the current Constitution getting rid of that historic “split” possibility.
Bieda’s other resolution, SJR Q, was far more sound. It provided that, in the event of a vacancy, the governor would nominate a LG who would take office upon confirmation by a majority vote in both the state House and Senate, a requirement missing in Article V, Section 22, of the state Constitution that provides for filling vacancies in the offices of SoS and A.G.
Remember, PA 202 of 1959 provides that the Senate President Pro-Tem and the Speaker of the House, in that order, should follow LG, SoS, and A.G. to become Acting Governor as a result of a catastrophic emergency.
Using that scenario, if a disaster killed the governor, LG, SoS, A.G., Senate Pro-Tem and the House Speaker, the first person on Gov. Whitmer’s list (Eubanks) would become Acting Governor, followed by the remaining four, in order, if anything should happen to #1.
Looking back, under PA 202 of 1959, who might have become #1 in the event of a disaster, like the Coronavirus, that might have wiped out Whitmer’s predecessor, Rick Snyder, and all others in Michigan state government’s top leadership between 2011 and 2019? For Snyder, it would have been one of his top aides, former Lt. Gov. Dick Posthumus. The other four on the “Doomsday List,” although unelected, could have become Michigan’s acting governor — #2, Col. Kriste Etue, Director of the State Police; #3, Nick Khouri, State Treasurer; #4, Keith Creagh, Director of the Dept. of Natural Resources; or #5, Nick Lyon, Director of Health & Human Services.
Gov. Snyder’s list included three new names since earlier lists he submitted to the Office of the Great Seal — Etue, Khouri and Lyon. They replaced former DHHS director Maura Corrigan, former Dept. of Environmental Quality Director Dan Wyant, and former Dept. of Licensing & Regulatory Affairs Director Steve Hilfinger.
Curious for more? Who would assume the duties of SoS if something happened to Jocelyn Benson and there was nobody above her in office to make an appointment to fill the vacancy she left? We don’t know whom Benson has on her list, but her predecessor, Republican Ruth Johnson, now a state senator, had a list that ran as follows: #1 Michael J. Senyko, Chief of Staff; #2, Rose M. Jarois, Director of Department Services Administration; #3, Michael L. Wartella, Director of Customer Service Administration; #4, William R. Kordenbrock, Director of Legal Services Administration; and #5, Christopher M. Thomas, Director of Elections.
How about the same for Attorney General? Again, we don’t know about Dana Nessel, but her predecessor, Republican Bill Schuette, designated #1, Carol Isaacs, Chief Deputy Attorney General; #2, Matthew J. Schneider, Chief Legal Counsel; #3, Aaron Lindstrom, Solicitor General; #4, B. Eric Restuccia, Assistant Solicitor General; and #5, Denise Barton, Practice Group Manager.