Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
In the early morning hours of September 11, 2015, the Michigan House of Representatives voted to expel Representative Cindy Gamrat (R-Plainwell) from office. Representative Todd Courser (R-Lapeer) had resigned about an hour earlier, shortly before the state house was set to vote on his own expulsion.
In the days that followed, both Gamrat and Courser filed to run for their former seats. Both were soundly defeated in the special primary elections on November 3, 2015.
Expulsions are exceedingly rare in the Michigan Legislature, and it is even rarer for a legislator to resign from office and then immediately run to regain his or her former seat. Quite simply, the electoral maneuvering of Gamrat and Courser is not likely to recur with any regularity. And even if it does, the democratic process usually produces the right result. Indeed, as noted above, the voters decisively quashed the comeback efforts of the disgraced former representatives. It’s just not a big problem.
But State Representative Lisa Posthumus Lyons (R-Alto) apparently believes it is. On Tuesday, Rep. Lyons introduced House Bill 5407 with the intent of barring any former legislator who has been expelled or has resigned from office from running in the special election to fill his or her former seat.
Aside from being completely unnecessary, the bill is also unconstitutional. To begin, the Michigan Constitution provides that “[n]o member [of the Legislature] shall be expelled a second time for the same cause.” Const 1963, art 4, sec 16. In other words, the Michigan Constitution explicitly allows former legislators who have been expelled to run for and serve in the Legislature following their expulsion.
More importantly, the Michigan Constitution sets forth a comprehensive list of qualifications for state legislative candidates. In order to run for the Michigan Legislature—including in a special election to fill a vacant seat—a candidate must be a citizen of the United States, at least 21 years old, and a qualified elector of the district that he or she seeks to represent. Const 1963, art 4, sec 7. In addition, a legislative candidate must not have been convicted of subversion or a felony involving breach of the public trust within the preceding 20 years, Const 1963, art 4, sec 7, must make an accounting of any public moneys over which he or she has control, Const 1963, art 11, sec 4, and must not have committed any felony involving dishonesty, fraud, or deceit in his or her official capacity as a government official or employee within the preceding 20 years, Const 1963, art 11, sec 8. Finally, no person may serve in the Michigan Legislature if he or she has a substantial conflict of interest caused by a direct or indirect interest in a government contract, Const 1963, art 4, sec 10, or if he or she simultaneously holds another government office or position, other than as a notary public or member of the armed forces reserve, Const 1963, art 4, sec 8.
The state constitution provides that each house of the Michigan Legislature shall be the “sole judge of the qualifications . . . of its members.” Const 1963, art 4, sec 16. But this does not mean that either house of the Legislature may impose new qualifications; it means only that the Legislature, itself, has the power to determine whether its members satisfy the aforementioned constitutional qualifications.
The Michigan Constitution provides an exhaustive list of qualifications for legislative candidates that may not be expanded by statute. In order to create a new qualification for legislative candidates, it would be necessary to amend the state constitution.
Rep. Lyons’s pending legislation, House Bill 5407, would attempt to create a new qualification for legislative candidates running in special elections. This is not constitutionally permissible. While it is true that the Legislature may statutorily prescribe the “manner” of holding special elections to fill legislative vacancies, Const 1963, art 5, sec 13, it may not prohibit otherwise-constitutionally-eligible candidates from running in those elections.