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A Better Partnership
August 28, 2014

COA holds that Cadillac's mayor cannot independently and finally fire a civil service commissioner under MCL 38.504

In Mayor of Cadillac v. Blackburn, No. 312803, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that: (1) circuit courts have original jurisdiction over disputed mayoral removals of civil services commissioners; and (2) the circuit court’s involvement in the process does not run afoul of the separation of powers in Michigan’s Constitution.
The mayor of Cadillac, Michigan sought to fire a civil service commissioner.  The commissioner had apparently served on the mayor’s opponent’s political campaign.  Under MCL 38.503, civil service commissioners are prohibited from taking “any active part in the management of any political campaign.”  Under MCL 38.504, the mayor “shall at any time remove any commissioner for incompetency, dereliction of duty, malfeasance in officer, or any other good cause . . . .”  The commissioner has ten days to respond his removal.  If he fails to respond within ten days, he is deemed removed.  If he timely responds, then the mayor has ten days to file a petition in circuit court, which will then hear the case.
The mayor fired the commissioner, who then timely responded. The mayor filed his petition with the circuit court, which held that it had original jurisdiction and that the mayor bore the burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence as to “good cause” to fire the commissioner.  The mayor immediately appealed the imposition of this standard.
First, the mayor argued that the circuit court erroneously interpreted MCL 38.504 in way that is inconsistent with judicial review of administrative decisions under the Michigan Constitution, Article 6, Section 28.  The Court of Appeals held that this was not a case of judicial review.  Instead, the circuit court has original jurisdiction over these matters under a plain reading of MCL 38.504.  The firing is not final until the circuit court rules, so there is no “review” involved.  The circuit court, therefore, did not contradict the Michigan Constitution.  Furthermore, the Court of Appeals held that the mayor, as the proponent of the facts justifying the commissioner's removal, bore the burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence.
Next, the mayor argued that the circuit court’s involvement in his firing decisions violated the separation of powers under the Michigan Constitution, Article 3, Section 2.  The Court of Appeals stated that MCL 38.504 “in no way impinges the city executive’s decision to seek removal of [a commissioner].”  The mayor is free, in the first instance, to decide what constitutes “good cause.”  The circuit court is merely required to “perform a quintessential judicial function of deciding an existing case or controversy pending before it.”  Furthermore, the Court of appeals held that Article 3, Section 2 of the Michigan Constitution only applies to the state government, not to local governments.  The mayor’s constitutional challenge to MCL 38.504, therefore, failed.

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