MSC schedules quickie argument for petition font case

The Michigan Supreme Court granted leave to hear arguments in Stand Up For Democracy v. Secretary of State, et al., also known as the petition font case.

Last month, the Court of Appeals ruled that the signatures collected by the plaintiff could be accepted despite a minor imperfection in the font size of the petition, allowing the emergency manager law to be put to public vote in November. In that decision, the panel criticized the decision on which it based its decision, Bloomfield Charter Twp. v. Oakland County Clerk, asking for a special panel to overturn Bloomfield. The court declined to hold the special panel, necessitating the motion for leave to the Supreme Court.

The court has scheduled an expedited hearing for July 25, 2012.

In the leave order, Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. asked the parties to address definitions of “point” and “type” as they were understood in 1954 and 1965, when the Legislature passed and amended the petition requirement  statutes and whether those definitions should control the issue over how the terms were understood when the statutes were amended again in 1993 and 1998. (The terms apparently weren’t altered or redefined in the later amendments.)

Justice Stephen Markman asked the parties to address how the “point” and “type” should be measured (by size of the printer’s block or the actual printed character) and related issues.

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Special panel needed to settle petition font issue, COA panel says.

A Michigan Court of Appeals panel has asked for the convening of a special panel to reconsider its 2002 decision in Bloomfield Charter Twp. v. Oakland County Clerk.

The panel was reviewing Stand Up for Democracy v. Sec. of State (in which the dispute is over whether the font size in the heading substantially complied with the statute, based on Bloomfield. It found that the Bloomfield case controlled the issue, and said the granting of a writ of mandamus was warranted, forcing the Secretary of State to put the referendum on the emergency manager law on the ballot.

However, the panel also unanimously declared that Bloomfield was wrongly decided:

In our judgment, Bloomfield was wrongly decided because it failed to apply the clear and unambiguous statutory language that the petition warning language “shall be printed in 12-point type immediately above the place for signatures” as required by § 482(5). The Legislature’s use of the word “shall” denotes mandatory conduct, Manual, 481 Mich at 647, and a court may not ignore the Legislature’s instruction of mandatory conduct, or make a different policy choice than has already been made by the Legislature, People v McIntire, 461 Mich 147, 152-153; 599 NW2d 102 (1999) … . The Bloomfield Court’s conclusion that initiating petitions need not “exactly match the Michigan Election Law requirements for form and content” ignored the Legislature’s use of the term “shall,” a clear expression of its intent that the form of an initiating petition be in a specified type, and constituted an improper failure to recognize and defer to a legislative mandate.

The panel has issued a stay on its decision granting the writ until the special panel is either denied or clears up the Bloomfield issue.

MI COA: Adding a joint owner to home maintains taxable value when original owner dies

ED WHITE, Associated Press Writer

DETROIT (AP) — A dispute over a modest three-bedroom home in northern Michigan could have consequences statewide after an appeals court said the city of Charlevoix illegally raised the property’s taxable value when a co-owner died.

Taxes more than tripled after James Klooster’s death in 2005. Charlevoix had lifted the lid on the value, even though a son was a co-owner and the property didn’t change hands.

"James’ death was not a conveyance. … There was no transfer of ownership, and the taxable value of the property should not have been uncapped," the Michigan Court of Appeals said.

Assessors and local governments up and down Michigan are talking about the Dec. 15 decision. Any court-ordered restriction on raising a property’s taxable value prevents them from collecting more revenue.

Since Michigan voters approved Proposal A in 1994, the taxable value of a home can’t go up much unless there’s a new owner, typically through a sale.

Nathan Klooster, 50, said his father added him to the deed as a joint tenant, or co-owner, in August 2004, five months before his death.

Klooster said his mother, who has health problems, and a disabled sister still live in the house.

"My dad’s goal was he didn’t want to see them put in a home or go anywhere else. We talked about it at great length," said Klooster, who lives nearby in Marion Township.

But Charlevoix claimed the elder Klooster’s death triggered a transfer of ownership, raising the home’s taxable value to $72,300 from $37,802.

"We uncapped it because he was the sole owner of the property," Charlevoix County equalization director Betsy Mason said, referring to Klooster’s son.

Nathan Klooster said taxes have jumped to about $4,000 a year from $1,168. (Part of the increase is due to the lack of a homestead exemption because this is not his principal residence.)

Klooster’s lawyer, Steven Stapleton, said the court ruling "potentially has a bigger ripple" elsewhere in Michigan. Mason disagreed with the result.

"I don’t believe it was the intent of the Legislature to have a loophole for the uncapping process," she said. The consequences "go far beyond this one parcel."

[Ed. note – I don’t believe it was the intent of the Legislature either, because Proposal A was passed by referendum, and not passed by the legislature.]

Charlevoix hasn’t decided whether to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Grand Rapids lawyer Jeffrey Ammon, who specializes in property-tax law, said the Klooster case "should give comfort to taxpayers."

"Assessors are looking at any transfers, any deeds, any deaths to increase taxes," he said. "I don’t blame them for that. If they’re missing that sort of thing they’re not doing their job."