Michigan Supreme Court won’t hear term limits case involving Warren mayor

By: Gena Johnson | Warren Weekly | Published May 17, 2023 | Updated May 19, 2023 2:21pm

 Mayor Jim Fouts has scheduled a press conference for 11 a.m. May 18 at Warren City Hall.

Mayor Jim Fouts has scheduled a press conference for 11 a.m. May 18 at Warren City Hall.

Photo provided by the city of Warren


WARREN — On May 18, Mayor James Fouts had a press conference to address the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case that ordered him off the 2023 Warren primary ballot.

In a May 19 interview, Fouts said he is not to be counted out.

“It is not over. I am going to continue to look closely at the opinion of the judges, whether there was any conflict of interest, whether there was any questionable vote. I do not believe that they followed the rule of law. They must have just followed something else. It certainly wasn’t the rule of law,” the mayor said. “This ballot proposal was not clear. And the Supreme Court opinions have always been, if it is not clear, it is not legal.”

The press conference and Fouts’ remarks afterward came in response to the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision not to consider an appellate court ruling that left Fouts ineligible to run for an unprecedented fifth four-year term, potentially ending the legal wrangling that has gone on for months.

At the press conference, some elected city officials were denied entry.

“I heard it was a press conference on city property, in a city building, on city time, so I thought I would go to hear what he has to say,” City Council Vice President Garry Watts said.  “When I tried to go in, Amanda Mika said, ‘You are not invited. This is a private press conference.’”

Watts continued to pursue going into the press conference.

“I am a Warren City Council member, elected by the people, on city property during city time. I’m going to go in,” Watts said. “Then (there were) the two property maintenance (employees) posing as City Hall bouncers/bodyguards, preventing me from going in. They got in front of me and made a barrier.

“And of course, I’m not going to cause a disturbance.  So I proceeded to go over to the Police Department and made a police report,” Watts said.

Watts said he reported to the police that under the Open Meetings Act, he was prevented from going into an open meeting.

Amanda Mika, the mayor’s executive assistant, said the press conference was by invitation only.

“An open meeting is subject to the Open Meetings Act. Mr. Watts was not invited to the press conference. This was not an open meeting. It was by invitation only,” Mika said. “He is tying up valuable city resources filing false and frivolous police reports. Shame on him.”

Mika added, “The city of Warren does not employ bodyguards.”

Fouts has been a Warren elected official since 1981. He has said many times that service is his life. If he is no longer part of city government, he said at the press conference that he would still continue serving the residents of Warren in some capacity.

“I am happy. I may never be an elected official again, but the cause goes on,” Fouts told reporters.

The causes he discussed were the reforms he would like to see and the priorities for his seven months left in office. Those included electing a new mayor, electing a new council, approving a town center, cleaning up the parks, reforming term limits, especially for judges, and also doing away with age limits.

“I think there are judges in their 70s who can do a great job,” said the mayor.

Fouts also wants to stop fraternization between law firms and judges.

“There should be a strict prohibition from major law firms wining and dining judges,” Fouts said. “I think that’s wrong. If you’re wined and dined, you’re compromised, and you shouldn’t do it.”


The lawsuit over term limits
Although Fouts was not a named defendant in the original Macomb County Circuit Court case — Warren City Council and Ronald Papandrea v. Sonja Buffa (in her capacity as Warren’s city clerk), the Warren Election Commission and Anthony Forlini (in his capacity as Macomb County’s clerk) — the appellate court’s decision had a direct impact on the mayor’s political future. 

The Michigan Supreme Court granted immediate consideration, but ruled not to hear the case. 

Its decision stated, “On order of the Court, the motions for immediate consideration and motion to file an amicus brief are GRANTED. The application for leave to appeal the April 21, 2023 judgment of the Court of Appeals is considered, and it is DENIED, because we are not persuaded that the question presented should be reviewed by this Court.”

Warren City Council President and Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Green, who is also on the ballot for mayor this year, stated in a press release: “I applaud today’s decision of the Supreme Court because it upholds the will of the Warren residents who voted overwhelmingly for term limits. Government and government officials are not above the law. We would not have these lawsuits if we had officials that followed the law. This costly litigation was unnecessary because the voters spoke loudly and clearly at (the) ballot box.”

Green was also not allowed into the mayor’s press conference.

“I wish Mayor Fouts well and am looking forward to working with him in the coming months to move the city of Warren forward,” Green said afterward.


What started this?
In 2020, Fouts was serving in his fourth term in office after Warren voters approved an extension of term limits for the city’s mayors only in 2016, giving them the potential to serve five terms or 20 years. All other officials elected to city offices have been limited to three four-year terms or 12 years since term limits were first enacted by a charter amendment in 1998.

This most recent lawsuit started when the Warren City Council sued Buffa, the Election Commission — composed of Buffa, City Attorney Ethan Vinson and City Assessor Jennifer Czeiszperger — and Forlini for allowing Fouts on the ballot for what would be a fifth term.

The case was first heard in Macomb County Circuit Court before Judge Joseph Toia, who based his March 23 opinion on the omission of the words “any terms or years served prior to this amendment are included” in the amended Warren city charter and on the “Proposal” section of the ballot, when term limits were last considered.  He explained the “Proposal” section of the ballot is where the voters check yes or no. Toia ruled it was not clear to voters whether previous terms were included in the term limits voted on in 2019 and implemented in 2020, or if the term limits were from 2020 and moving forward.

As a result, Toia ruled that the city clerk, the Election Commission and county clerk were allowed to keep Fouts on the ballot this year.

On April 21, the Michigan Court of Appeals overturned that ruling and ordered Buffa to remove Fouts from the ballot. The Michigan Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case has now upheld that ruling.