Voter photo ID law gets first test next Tuesday

Michigan’s not-so-new law requiring voters to show photo identification gets its first test this Tuesday, Nov. 6, in local elections around the state.

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The long, conflicting road to a photo ID law

The law was one of several 1996 amendments to the Michigan Election Law. Before the law took effect, then-Attorney General Frank Kelly issued an opinion, in which he said the photo ID requirement violated the Equal Protection Clause.

The law lay dormant for eight years. In 2005, it was revived, unchanged, by other election law amendments, effective Jan. 1, 2007.

With Frank Kelly’s opinion lurking in the background, the House asked the Michigan Supreme Court to answer this question in an advisory opinion: “Do the photo identification requirements contained in 2005 PA 71 violate either the Michigan Constitution or the United States Constitution?”

In an order issued in April 2006, on a 5-2 vote, the question the court chose to answer was, “Do the photo identification requirements of Section 523 of 2005 PA 71, MCL 168.523, on their face, violate either the Michigan Constitution or the United States Constitution?”

Justice Marilyn Kelly dissented for two reasons. First, the House framed the question too broadly. Second, the question the majority agreed to answer was not the question asked. Justice Michael Cavanagh also dissented.

The court issued a 5-2 opinion, which held “that the photo identification requirement contained in the statute is facially constitutional under the balancing test articulated by the United States Supreme Court in Burdick v Takushi.”

Information from “Michigan’s Photo ID Requirement for Voters”

If you don’t have such ID, or you do and you left it at home, you can still get a ballot but you must sign an affidavit to that effect.

There’s a stiff penalty for lying about the status of your ID, or the lack of one: you could be convicted of perjury, pay a fine of up to $1,000 or spend up to five years in prison, or both.

They’re not fooling around.

What’s acceptable photo ID? The Secretary of State’s office has provided a helpful list.

There’s been much speculation about what effect the law will have on voter participation and whether it prevent the evil it was designed to cure – election fraud.

Here’s the take of Suzanne Lowe, Michigan Senate Bill Analysis Coordinator, in her article, “Michigan’s Photo ID Requirement for Voters.” It’s in the latest issue of “State Notes: Topics of Legislative Interest.”

According to the Secretary of State’s office, approximately 370,000 registered voters in Michigan (or about 5.0 percent of all registered voters in the State) do not have either a driver license or an official State identification card. There are no data on the number of voters who also do not have any of the other types of photo ID that the Secretary of State considers acceptable. Of the voters who do have photo ID, there is no way of knowing how many will not bring it to the polls because they forget to or do not know about the law’s requirement. It also is not possible to predict how many voters who do not have photo ID, or have it but do not bring it to the polls, will be unable to sign an affidavit because they cannot read or understand the document, or will be unwilling to sign one because they feel intimidated or embarrassed or simply do not want to take the time.

Whether the photo ID requirement actually represents a “barrier to the ballot box,” as critics contend, may be known only after the requirement is implemented, and perhaps only after it is enforced during the November 2008 general election. Whether the requirement serves to prevent voter fraud may never be know. Although there have been convictions in Michigan for illegal activity during voter registration drives, there does not appear to be any evidence of the type of in-person polling place voter impersonation that the photo ID requirement might deter. As some contend, this may be because of the difficulty of detecting such activity and catching the offenders. On the other hand, to the extent that such fraud does occur, it is questionable whether the penalty for signing a false affidavit will deter someone who is willing to commit a felony by voting under a false name or impersonating another elector.

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Ohio Supreme Court pans Fieger client’s $30M verdict

It was the Ohio Supreme Court’s turn last week to do what Michigan appellate courts have done several times over the past few years – wipe out a multi-million dollar verdict for one of Geoffrey Fieger’s clients.

This time, it was a $30 million jury award for a 20-year-old man who was born with a damaged brain and other serious problems.

The reason the OSC brought the curtain down on the verdict? In part, it was Fieger’s “theatrics” in the courtroom.

Now, the trial judge wasn’t exactly blame-free either. As recounted by the OSC, the trial judge let Fieger’s expert testify, over defense counsel’s objection, about medical-care costs far in excess of the figure the expert provided in a written report. And then there was the judge’s in-the-hallway off-the-record instruction to jurors, some of whom admitted they saw a newspaper article about the trial. The judge’s on-the-spot attempt to unring the bell: he told the jury to disregard what they had read.

When the defense team demanded a new trial, the judge readily agreed. The OSC noted the trial judge’s acknowledgement that his miscue with the expert allowed the jury to think about, and award, $15 million in economic damages. And the newspaper article? The judge said he had read it, too, and he could easily see how some of the jurors may have been itching to give Fieger’s client a record-breaking award.

Another big influence on the jury, the trial court and the OSC agreed, was the man from Oakland County, Michigan and the way he conducted himself in court.

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Some Michigan judges have seen it, said it before

Michigan’s appellate courts, on occasion, have been extremely critical of Geoffrey Fieger’s trial tactics, and have taken him to task for many of the same things discussed in the Ohio courts’ opinions. See, Powell v. St. John Hosp., Badalamenti v. William Beaumont Hosp., and Gilbert v. DaimlerChrysler.

The OSC echoed the trial judge’s observations that: Fieger was discourteous; there were plenty of theatrics; he interrupted defense counsel; he put his own words into the witnesses’ mouths; he mischaracterized evidence to mislead the jury and he brought the forbidden issue of attorney fees into play.

In closing argument, the OSC said, Fieger dwelled on a spoliation-of-evidence claim, even though the trial judge had earlier thrown it out. And he cast the case as an epic struggle between a poor black guy and rich, powerful corporate interests.

In the end, the OSC said the jury did pretty much what Fieger asked: it looked at its $15 million economic damages award on the verdict form and wrote another $15 million in the space for punitive damages.

After the trial judge entered the order for a new trial, the plaintiff’s team moved to disqualify him. Apparently, the trial judge had had enough and voluntarily recused himself from further proceedings.

Up in the Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eighth District, the majority and dissenting opinions reveal that none of the judges were concerned about the trial judge’s extracurricular handling of the newspaper article. The majority said Fieger hadn’t objected and defense counsel apparently had a private chat with the trial judge about the article. They weren’t about to reward a claimed error that defense counsel instigated.

The majority characterized Fieger’s performance as zealous representation. “While we agree that plaintiff’s attorney does not appear in the transcript to be the most likeable person, we do not find that his conduct rises to the level to justify the granting of a new trial.” In contrast, the dissenting judge spent 27 pages detailing what she called Fieger’s “manipulative trial technique” and “the extent of his outrageous melodrama” in his closing argument, which, she said, was enough by itself to warrant a new trial.

The majority said the defense team was not contesting liability on appeal, only the super-sized verdict. Because there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s liability finding, there was no need for a new trial. The majority conceded that there were problems with the expert testimony on damages. Remittitur would be the correct remedy. And, “the trial court is in the best position to determine whether a damages award is excessive.”

The OSC said the appeals court was looking at the wrong thing. It’s not about whether there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict. It’s all about the trial court being in the best position to determine whether the jury’s verdict “was excessive and given under the influence of passion or prejudice” and whether counsel’s misconduct “tainted the verdict.” The OSC ruled that if there’s competent, credible evidence to answer “yes” to these inquiries, as there was in this case, the trial court does not abuse its discretion by ordering a new trial, and that decision “should remain undisturbed.”

A dissenting justice sided with the lower appeals court majority on the issue of remittitur.

He also had this to say:

To order a retrial because of the obnoxious behavior of an attorney does our system of justice no favors – such behavior must be dealt with as it occurs, not after a judge decides that a party may have benefited from it.

The verdict should be knocked down to $10 million, the dissenter said. That’s a lot closer to the evidence of economic damages.

And he closed with this zinger:

Should the plaintiff refuse the remittitur, he would be entitled to a new trial. Before that trial, it would be wise for the trial judge to deny any motion for admission pro hac vice filed on behalf of Mr. Fieger.

The case is Harris v. Mt. Sinai Medical Center.