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A Better Partnership
June 27, 2016

COA: Court of Claims has jurisdiction to hear and decide writ of mandamus case brought by Court of Appeals judge seeking reelection

In O’Connell v Director of Elections, No. 332132 the Court of Appeals harmonized conflicting jurisdictional provisions from state statutes and the Michigan Constitution and determined that the Court of Claims has jurisdiction to hear and decide cases requesting a writ of mandamus.
A writ of mandamus is an order from a court to a government official ordering the official to fulfill his or her duties properly. In this case, Judge Peter O’Connell of the Court of Appeals, Fourth District sought a writ of mandamus against Christopher Thomas, the Director of Elections, asking the court to order Thomas to accept Judge O’Connell’s affidavit of candidacy and of identity.  Judge O’Connell is up for reelection in 2019, by which time he will be 70 years old.  For an affidavit of candidacy to be valid, MCL 168.409b(6) requires that the incumbent judge submitting the affidavit be less than 70 years old.  Rather than finishing his term, Judge O’Connell is seeking to run for reelection in 2017 (when he will not yet be 70) against Judge Gadola (who was appointed in 2014 to fill a vacancy and is up for election in 2017). Judge O’Connell argues that even though he will not be running for reelection to his seat, O’Connell should still be able to be listed as an incumbent in his race against Judge Gadola.
The Court of Claims dismissed the case because it believed it did not have subject-matter jurisdiction over a complaint for a writ of mandamus, but rather that the circuit court had exclusive jurisdiction. The Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed and remanded the case to the Court of Claims to decide whether or not the writ should be granted. The Court of Appeals agreed with the Court of Claims that there is “tension” among the statutes conferring subject-matter jurisdiction over writs of mandamus to the circuit court and Court of Claims and the Michigan Constitution.  However, the Court of Appeals held that the best reading of all the statutory and constitutional jurisdictional provisions gives the Court of Claims jurisdiction to hear and decide cases involving “extraordinary” writs, which includes writs of mandamus.
Specifically, the Court of Appeals looked to several separate provisions to conclude that the circuit court did not have exclusive jurisdiction over the writ of mandamus.  First, the Court noted that the Michigan Constitution granted the circuit court “original jurisdiction in all matters not prohibited by law” and the “power to issue, hear and determine prerogative and remedial writs.”  Second, the Court of Appeals cited MCL 600.4401(1), which states that an “action for mandamus against a state officer shall be commenced in the court of appeals, or in the circuit court in the county in which venue is proper or in Ingham county, at the option of the party commencing the action.”  As the Court of Appeals noted, this “in isolation, . . . seems to indicate that an action for mandamus against a state officer is only properly instituted in this Court or the appropriate circuit court.”  But “[s]uch an interpretation . . . fails to harmonize that provision . . . with portions of the Court of Claims act, . . . specifically MCL 600.6419.”  MCL 600.6419, in turn, provides the Court of Claims jurisdiction to hear a demand for an extraordinary writ against the state or its officers.
The Court of Appeals frankly acknowledged “a degree of tension between MCL 600.4401(1) and MCL 600.6419(1)(a).”  To rectify or harmonize this tension, the Court of Appeals concluded that “§ 6419(1)(a) should be read to expand the original jurisdiction of Court of Claims to include ‘any demand for an extraordinary writ against the state or any of its departments or officers      ’ such that the Court of Claims now possesses jurisdiction over mandamus claims that had previously been within the jurisdiction of the circuit court pursuant to MCL 600.4401(1).”  Such a reading was permissible because the Constitution only grants “the circuit court original jurisdiction to issue, hear, and determine prerogative writs, but it does not state that such original jurisdiction is exclusive.”  Rather, “the Constitution also grants the Supreme Court power over prerogative writs, and [the] Court [of Appeals] has jurisdiction over prerogative writs pursuant to MCL 600.4401 and Const 1963, art 6, § 10.”  Accordingly, the Court of Appeals concluded that “the circuit court’s jurisdiction over such writs is not constitutionally exclusive.”  Thus, it remanded the case to the Court of Claims for determination whether a writ of mandamus was justified.
In sum, the circuit court never had exclusive jurisdiction over claims for mandamus against state-level defendants, MCL 600.6419(1) permissibly delegated such jurisdiction to the Court of Claims, and MCL 600.6419(6) did not revoke that delegation of jurisdiction because it was unnecessary to do so.

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