LANSING, Mich. — The Michigan House voted unanimously Wednesday to make sure people who file certain types of lawsuits against the state have a right to a jury trial, an attempt to fix a controversial law that gave jurisdiction over state suits to different judges.
Majority Republicans and Gov. Rick Snyder enacted the law in November to take lawsuits against the state and its officials away from Ingham County judges in the Democratic-leaning Lansing area and move them to four appeals court judges to hear traditional Court of Claims cases. The new court also has jurisdiction over suits against the state that county judges oversaw, such as constitutional challenges, civil rights claims, and freedom of information and open meetings cases.
The right-to-jury bill now goes to the Senate, where it's likely to win approval next week before lawmakers adjourn for the year.
Concerns about the law have been raised by Democrats, Ingham judges, trial lawyers, the State Bar of Michigan and even a retired GOP legislative aide. One criticism of the 3-week-old law is it could deprive plaintiffs of the right to a jury in certain cases that are in county courts but outside the Court of Claims.
"While we disagree with the interpretation regarding jury trials, we want to provide perfect clarity to the fact that people who had the right to a jury trial under the old law will continue to have this important right for generations to come," said Rep. Mike Shirkey, a Clark Lake Republican and sponsor of the bill. "Allowing a jury of our peers to judge cases is one of the basic tenets of our system of justice, and although extremely rare in Court of Claims cases, this undeniable right must be clearly spelled out."
He said the bill also would clarify that the state attorney general does not have to transfer all pending cases against the state to the Court of Claims, meaning some could stay in local circuit, district and probate courts.
Democrats who oppose the new law voted for the "trailer" legislation, but said other issues remain, questioning specifically whether people who sue the state and private parties could be forced to wait longer for a jury to hear their case.
"This does not solve all the issues and constitutional concerns that we have," said Rep. Sam Singh, an East Lansing Democrat.