The smackdown delivered to Attorney General Dana Nessel by the Michigan Supreme Court last week was about as big a wallop as it gets.
The unanimous ruling and a separate concurrence basically accused the AG’s office of subverting justice and manipulating the law to press its unwarranted vendetta against then-Gov. Rick Snyder and eight members of his team in the Flint water crisis.
Chief Justice Bridget McCormack called what Nessel’s team tried to do in denying due process to the defendants a “Star Chamber comeback,” a reference to the secretive medieval courts that arrested, prosecuted and sentenced their targets in one efficient proceeding that cut off avenues for defense.
Justice Richard Bernstein accused the AG’s office of mining obscure statutes in the state constitution to tilt the advantage toward the prosecution.
Specifically, Nessel’s surrogates, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud, took the case to a one-man grand jury to review the evidence and issue the charges.
And then they tried to use the juror to deny the defendants a preliminary exam and send them straight to trial without the opportunity to see the evidence against them.
That, the court declared, was an abuse of due process, the foundation of our legal system, and blatantly unconstitutional.
The severity of the rebuke should have humiliated Nessel and her proxies. They are supposed to be the caretakers of justice, and yet they stomped on justice to extract vengeance from their political enemies.
But Nessel is a poor steward of the law. Her Flint team is signaling it won’t be deterred by the court’s opinion, and will continue to pursue the case that has already cost taxpayers at least $40 million.
On Friday, Nessel continued her pattern of disregarding laws she doesn’t agree with in asking a lower court to ignore the Supreme Court’s ruling and continue charges against at least one defendant.
They say they are fighting for justice for the Flint victims. But that won’t come by putting good people in jail for making mistakes on the job. Ruining more lives won’t undo the damage done to those whose water was poisoned.
Compensating the victims for their pain and suffering is the job of the civil courts, where they’ve already been awarded more than $600 million in a federal court settlement.
There certainly are times when politicians and bureaucrats should face criminal charges — when they cheat and steal, or act intentionally to harm those whom they’re entrusted to protect. But putting in place a harmful policy or making the wrong choice, while acting in good faith, should carry a political penalty, not a criminal one. Bungling is not a crime. If it was, few of our leaders would make it through a term without being charged.
Criminalizing public service is why our choices for political office get sorrier every year. Politics has become a fast track to the penitentiary.
Once prosecution becomes part of the political toolkit, everyone is vulnerable. Today, Nessel is trying to lock up Republicans. Next year, a GOP prosecutor may use that precedent to send Gov. Gretchen Whitmer packing off to jail for COVID-19 nursing home deaths.
This cycle should stop right here. Nessel should accept the bruising delivered her by the Supreme Court and say “Never mind.”
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