Federal judge denies effort to put term-limited councilmen on ballot

By: Brian Louwers | Warren Weekly | Published June 18, 2019 | Updated June 21, 2019 3:29pm

 Outside of the courthouse, plaintiffs Sallie Hock and Jason McClannahan said they were optimistic about a ruling in their favor June 20.

Outside of the courthouse, plaintiffs Sallie Hock and Jason McClannahan said they were optimistic about a ruling in their favor June 20.

Photo by Brian Louwers

Ten days after the Michigan Supreme Court upheld a ruling that took four term-limited Warren City Council incumbents off the ballot, a federal judge denied a request that would have instructed city elections officials to put them put back on.  

As a result, barring yet another legal filing in this Warren elections odyssey, City Council members Robert Boccomino, Cecil St. Pierre, Scott Stevens and Steven Warner will not be eligible for re-election.  

In a 25-page order filed June 21, U.S. District Court Judge Marianne Battani said “federal courts must be mindful of the principles of federalism that serve as a check on their authority to scrutinize state or local election practices.” She later summarized her decision by saying, “most of the relevant factors do not support an award of preliminary injunctive relief in this case. More importantly, Plaintiffs have not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits. Next, their claim of irreparable injury depends upon a posited constitutional violation that, in the Court’s view, likely did not occur. In addition, Plaintiffs’ requested relief threatens substantial harm to others, and Plaintiffs have not shown that this relief would serve the public interest.”

This second effort to keep Boccomino, St. Pierre, Stevens and Warner on the ballot this year moved to federal court June 20, nine days after the state’s high court ruled they were ineligible. The federal lawsuit was brought by four residents who said their rights to political association and effective voting were infringed upon by the decision to remove the term-limited candidates from this year's ballot.

Battani heard arguments from former Republican Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, representing residents Sallie Hock, Jason McClanahan, Clifford Frost and Darrell Vickers as plaintiffs.

She also heard from attorney Jim Kelly, who filed an intervening motion on behalf of council candidate Connor Berdy, whose initial state court challenge led to the decision by the Michigan Supreme Court to pull the four from the ballot.

Boccomino, St. Pierre, Stevens and Warner were excluded earlier this month after Macomb County Circuit Court Judge James Maceroni ruled that the city's term limits provision made them ineligible to seek re-election to the council. The decision was later overturned by the Michigan Court of Appeals, but it was then upheld by the Michigan Supreme Court June 11.

Cox, in the text of the federal complaint and in his courtroom arguments, alleged due process violations, with claims that in following the state court’s ruling, City Clerk Sonja Buffa and the Warren Election Commission "significantly departed from their previous years-long state (municipal) election practice, which had been affirmed by the Macomb Circuit Court and Michigan Court of Appeals in 2015 — specifically, how they determined eligibility for City Council candidates under the Warren City Charter rules on term limits — by unexpectedly striking” the candidates.

The lawsuit added that the four candidates are “politically associated” with the plaintiffs and represent the plaintiffs’ “deeply held political beliefs on the proper governance of the city of Warren.”

In her affidavit, Hock said she has come to know and support Stevens and that “he represents my political views and ideas on how Warren should be governed, through actions and experience that others on the ballot do not.”

She pointed out that in the past, as a result of decisions by Warren’s former clerk, past city attorney and a Macomb County Circuit Court judge, candidates had been allowed to serve more than 12 years in total on the council if they served in district and at-large seats.

“If I knew the rule was going to be changed by a new court ruling this year, I would have worked with friends and neighbors to find a candidate like Scott Stevens who supports our political views on city of Warren topics such as taxes, police protection and the role of the mayor,” Hock said in her statement.

In his response before the judge, Kelly argued that the plaintiffs were wrong to rely on the city’s past practices regarding its term-limited council candidates — practices he said were later viewed as flawed by the state’s high court.

“How have they (the plaintiffs) been injured? You don’t have a right to vote for ineligible candidates,” Kelly said.

Warren voters established term limits in 1998 as three four-year terms for all city elected offices. In December 2014, former Warren City Attorney David Griem said that the city’s voters created a “bicameral legislature” when they approved a charter amendment that trimmed the council from nine to seven members spread across district and at-large seats in 2010. As a result, Griem opined that council members should be eligible to serve three terms in a district and three terms in an at-large seat. Macomb County Circuit Court Judge Dianne Druzinski ruled against a challenge of Griem’s opinion filed in 2015. At the time, St. Pierre and Council member Keith Sadowski were permitted to seek re-election and were elected again, despite falling under the apparent threshold of three four-year terms.

Buffa, who attended the hearing with Warren City Attorney Ethan Vinson (both are members of the Warren Election Commission) confirmed that ballots for the Aug. 6 primary election have been printed without the names of the aforementioned candidates, and that they are in the city’s possession.

Attorney Mark Straetmans, with Berry Moorman, PC, representing the city’s interests in the matter, declined to argue on the record and stated that the clerk and the Election Commission were prepared to follow the law and the direction of the court.