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Court Tosses Ex-Michigan Governor’s Flint Water Indictment (2)

June 28, 2022, 3:08 PMUpdated: June 28, 2022, 8:08 PM

A unanimous Michigan Supreme Court tossed on procedural grounds the criminal indictments of former Gov. Rick Snyder and other officials prosecutors have charged with crimes related to the water crisis in Flint, Mich.

While the suit wasn’t brought by Snyder (R), the ruling undermines his indictment, as well as the charges against potentially eight other state and local Flint officials. It means that the criminal process for Flint prosecutions must restart for a second time.

The procedural ruling held that Michigan’s “one-man grand jury” system in which a state judge—instead of a grand jury made up of citizens—reviewed evidence can’t be used to issue indictments or prevent defendants from getting a preliminary examination of the evidence against them.

The challenges to the process were brought by Nicolas Lyon, Nancy Peeler, and Richard Baird—three Snyder administration officials in separate criminal proceedings. Lyon served as Michigan Department of Health and Human Services director, while Peeler was a state health department manager and Baird was a senior adviser to the governor.

The state Legislature “amended the statutory scheme to authorize judges to issue indictments, but later removed that authority,” Chief Justice Bridget McCormack wrote in the unanimous opinion. “Perhaps not surprisingly, the statute never says a judge may issue an indictment, in specific contrast to the statutes governing citizens grand juries.”

Snyder faces two counts of misdemeanor willful neglect of duty for his alleged role in exposing roughly 100,000 Flint residents to lead when state and local officials switched the city’s water source to the Flint River in 2014 to save money. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

“We will be moving immediately to dismiss all criminal charges against Governor Snyder based on today’s unequivocal and scathing Supreme Court ruling,” Snyder’s legal team said in a joint statement. “We applaud today’s decision from the Michigan Supreme Court, which leaves no doubt about how Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office egregiously mishandled these cases from the beginning.”

Setback for Nessel

The Supreme Court’s decision is a setback for Nessel (D), who—citing flaws with evidence gathering and documentation—restarted the Flint water criminal process after she assumed office in 2019.

Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud issued a statement saying that the cases “are not over,” and that her team is prepared to refile charges with the local court and hold preliminary examinations of their evidence.

“We relied upon settled law and the well-established prosecutorial tool of the one-man grand jury, used for decades, to bring forward charges against the nine defendants in the Flint water crisis,” she said. “We still believe these charges can and will be proven in court.”

Justice Elizabeth Clement sat out of the case because of her prior representation of Snyder during his tenure as governor. Justice Richard Bernstein concurred completely in the ruling, but issued a separate opinion stressing the importance in having a preliminary examination of the evidence in a criminal trial.

The prosecution “must adhere to proper procedural requirements because of the magnitude of the harm that was done to Flint residents,” Bernstein wrote.

“Proper procedure is arguably most necessary in cases of great public significance, particularly where the charged crimes have been characterized as especially heinous and where the court proceedings are likely to be heavily scrutinized by the general public,” he added.

The cases are People v. Peeler, Mich., No. 163667, opinion 6/28/22; People v. Baird, Mich., No. 163672, opinion 6/28/22 and People v. Lyon, Mich., No. 164191, opinion 6/28/22.

(Adds comment from Michigan Solicitor General in paragraphs nine and 10.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ebert in Madison, Wisconsin at aebert@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergindustry.com; Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bloombergindustry.com