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Michigan Supreme Court declines opinion on wage, sick laws

Posted at 9:29 AM, Dec 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-19 09:29:26-05

LANSING, Mich. — A divided Michigan Supreme Court declined Wednesday to rule early on the constitutionality of Republicans’ lame-duck maneuver to weaken voter-proposed minimum wage and paid sick leave laws, saying a decision should wait until a lawsuit is filed and reaches the justices.

In a 4-3 decision, the high court said it was not persuaded that granting lawmakers’ request for a rare advisory opinion would be an appropriate exercise of the court’s jurisdiction. The declaration potentially could have avoided a lengthy legal fight, though some justices expressed concern that such an opinion would have limited effect.

In July, justices heard arguments about “adopt and amend,” a controversial and unprecedented strategy the GOP-led Legislature used last year. To prevent minimum wage and sick time ballot drives from going to the electorate, after which they would have been much harder to change if voters had passed them, legislators approved them so they could be made more business-friendly after the election with simple majority votes and the signature of the outgoing Republican governor, Rick Snyder.

Justice Elizabeth Clement wrote that the court can only advise lawmakers about the constitutionality of new laws before they take effect. The watered-down minimum wage hike and paid sick time requirements went into effect in late March, more than a month after the House and Senate adopted resolutions requesting the opinion.

“An advisory opinion at this point might introduce more confusion, not less, precisely because — were the laws held unconstitutional — the effect of such a pronouncement would be highly uncertain,” said Clement. Chief Justice Bridget McCormack and Justices Richard Berstein and Megan Cavanagh also voted to deny the request.

Dissenting Justice Stephen Markman, noting that the legislative chambers made their request before the laws too effect, said the court “possesses the authority — and, in my judgment, the reasonable obligation — to answer the question before it.” He also criticized the court’s “utter lack of urgency” in responding. Also supporting an advisory opinion were Justices David Viviano and Brian Zahra.

One of the two new laws gradually increases the state’s $9.45 minimum wage to $12.05 an hour by 2030, instead of to $12 by 2022, as was initially enacted. The other law exempts employers with fewer than 50 employees from having to provide paid sick days, a change that is estimated to leave up to 1 million employees without the benefit — unlike what was proposed by the initiative. It also limits the amount of annual mandatory leave at larger employers to 40 hours, instead of 72 hours.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce expressed disappointment with the court’s decision, saying employers and employees did not get the answers or certainty they were looking for.

“The court’s inaction will likely trigger a new round of litigation, meaning this issue might end up back in their laps at a later date,” said Wendy Block, vice president of business advocacy.

But Justin Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association, said the court’s decision to not get involved at this stage shows no “constitutional crisis” exists.

“No ruling is a win for economic stability, opportunity and future job growth in the hospitality industry,” he said.

One Fair Wage, the committee that led the minimum wage drive, respects the decision and is exploring all its options, said chairwoman Alicia Renee Farris.

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