By ED WHITE – Associated Press
DETROIT (AP) — The Michigan Supreme Court on Tuesday dismissed the charges against former Governor Rick Snyder and others in the Flint water scandal, saying a judge who sat as a one-person grand jury had no jurisdiction to charge indictments under rarely used state laws.
It’s an astonishing defeat for Attorney General Dana Nessel, who took office in 2019, relieved a special counsel and assembled a new team to investigate crimes committed when lead contaminated Flint’s water system in 2014-15.
State laws “authorize a judge to investigate, subpoena witnesses and issue arrest warrants,” the Supreme Court said.
“But they don’t empower the judge to issue charges,” the court said in a 6-0 opinion written by Chief Justice Bridget McCormack.
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She called it a “comeback to the Star Chamber,” a pejorative reference to an oppressive, closed-loop style of justice in 17th-century England.
The complaint was filed by lawyers for former health director Nick Lyon, but the decision also applies to Snyder and others charged. The cases will now return to Genesee County Court with dismissal requests.
“This wasn’t even a close case — it was a six-zip. … They couldn’t do what they were trying to do,” said Lyon attorney Chip Chamberlain.
Snyder’s legal team described the court’s opinion as “unequivocal and damning”.
“These prosecutions of Governor Snyder and the other defendants were never about seeking justice for the citizens of Flint,” Snyder’s attorneys said. “On the contrary, Attorney General Nessel and her politically appointed Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud carried out a self-interested, vindictive, wasteful and politically motivated prosecution.”
However, Hammoud released a statement claiming that matters were not over, based on her interpretation of the advice. There was no immediate response to a request for additional comment.
The story began in 2014 when Flint executives hired by Snyder shut down a regional water system and started using the Flint River to save money while a new pipeline to Lake Huron was under construction. State regulators insisted that the river water did not need to be treated to reduce its corrosive properties. But that was a disastrous decision: Lead poured from old pipes in the predominantly black city for 18 months.
The Michigan Civil Rights Commission said it was the result of systemic racism and doubted the water change and grievance resolution would have occurred in a white, affluent community.
Snyder, a Republican, has long acknowledged that his administration in Flint has failed, calling it a crisis stemming from a “failure in the state government.”
He was absent in 2021 when he was charged with two offenses for intentional dereliction of duty. Former Lyon and Michigan medical director Dr. Eden Wells, was charged with involuntary manslaughter for nine deaths related to Legionnaires’ Disease, while Flint’s water may have contained insufficient chlorine to fight bacteria.
Six others were also indicted on various charges: Snyder’s longtime fixer, Rich Baird; former senior assistant Jarrod Agen; former Flint executives Gerald Ambrose and Darnell Earley; Flint’s former head of public works, Howard Croft; and Nancy Peeler, manager of a state health department.
Nessel appointed Hammoud to lead the criminal investigation, along with Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy, while the attorney general focused on settling lawsuits against the state.
Hammoud and Worthy turned to a one-man jury in Genesee County to secretly hear evidence and get charges against Snyder and others.
Michigan prosecutors typically file charges after a police investigation. A single judge grand jury is extremely rare and is usually used to protect witnesses, especially in violent crimes, who can testify privately.
“It appears that until now the jurisdiction of an investigating judge to issue an indictment was simply an indisputable assumption,” the Supreme Court said Tuesday.
Lyon, the former state health director, was accused of contributing to the deaths of Legionnaires by failing to warn the public of an outbreak in time. However, his lawyers said he had instructed experts to investigate the diseases and notify health officials in the Flint area. He had no part in Flint’s water change.
“Government employees should not be prosecuted or demonized for simply doing their job,” Lyon said after the court’s ruling.
Residents were disappointed.
“So everyone who was involved in this government-induced disaster is walking free?” said Leon El-Alamin, a community activist. “We lock people up every day for petty crimes. Something like that has cost people lives. People died from Flint’s water crisis.”
Former Mayor Karen Weaver said the result was unfair.
“One of the things we were told over and over was that justice has not been denied. But that’s not the case with the people of Flint,” Weaver says, referring to the years that have passed.
The water change and its implications have been under investigation since 2016, when then-Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, appointed Todd Flood as special counsel. Schuette promised to put people in jail, but the results were different: seven people did not plead for crimes that were eventually removed from their records.
Flood insisted he was gaining the cooperation of key witnesses and moving up the ranks toward bigger names. Nevertheless, Nessel, a Democrat, fired him and promised to start over after her election as Attorney General.
Separately, the state agreed to pay $600 million as part of a $626 million settlement with Flint residents and property owners who had suffered damage from leaded water. Most of the money goes to children.
There is no question that lead affects the brain and nervous system, especially in children. Experts have not established a safe level of lead in children.
Flint returned to a water system in southeastern Michigan in 2015. Meanwhile, about 10,100 lead or steel water pipes had been replaced at homes last December.
Associated Press writer Corey Williams in Detroit contributed to this story.
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