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It occurred to me that a long-standing Michigan Supreme Court ruling might possibly be incorrect; the case involves interpreting the Michigan Constitution [although, as pointed out below, this technically isn't possible as the MSC, by definition, has the final say-so in interpreting the constitution]. What is the process for having the issue re-heard?


Details: the case is Butcher v. Township of Grosse Ile, which deals with Article IX, Section 9 of the Michigan constitution.

Except as otherwise provided in this constitution, the total amount of general ad valorem taxes imposed upon real and tangible personal property for all purposes in any one year shall not exceed 15 mills on each dollar of the assessed valuation of property as finally equalized. Under procedures provided by law, which shall guarantee the right of initiative, separate tax limitations for any county and for the townships and for school districts therein, the aggregate of which shall not exceed 18 mills on each dollar of such valuation, may be adopted and thereafter altered by the vote of a majority of the qualified electors of such county voting thereon, in lieu of the limitation hereinbefore established. These limitations may be increased to an aggregate of not to exceed 50 mills on each dollar of valuation, for a period of not to exceed 20 years at any one time, if approved by a majority of the electors, qualified under Section 6 of Article II of this constitution, voting on the question.

The foregoing limitations shall not apply to taxes imposed for the payment of principal and interest on bonds approved by the electors or other evidences of indebtedness approved by the electors or for the payment of assessments or contract obligations in anticipation of which bonds are issued approved by the electors, which taxes may be imposed without limitation as to rate or amount; or, subject to the provisions of Section 25 through 34 of this article, to taxes imposed for any other purpose by any city, village, charter county, charter township, charter authority or other authority, the tax limitations of which are provided by charter or by general law.

In any school district which extends into two or more counties, property taxes at the highest rate available in the county which contains the greatest part of the area of the district may be imposed and collected for school purposes throughout the district.

Among other things, the court in Butcher found that the phrase "The foregoing limitations shall not apply ..." at the beginning of the second paragraph obviates the "... aggregate of not to exceed 50 mills ..." in the first paragraph for cites, et. al.

My very careful reading of the text makes me question whether this interpretation is correct.

The first paragraph says "... the total amount of general ad valorem taxes imposed upon real and tangible personal property for all purposes in any one year shall not exceed 15 mills ... . Under procedures provided by law, ... , separate tax limitations for any county and for the townships and for school districts therein, the aggregate of which shall not exceed 18 mills ... , in lieu of the limitation hereinbefore established." [emphasis added] That is, the 18-mill "limitation" replaces ("in lieu of") the 15-mill limitation.

The text then says, "... These limitations ..." What "limitations"? The 15- and 18-mill limitations just described. The text then continues "... may be increased to an aggregate of not to exceed 50 mills ..." Notice the wording here is "an aggregate of not to exceed", with no mention of the word "limitation." In other words, the "15- and 18-mill "limitations" may be increased up to 50 mills;" but "50 mills" itself isn't a "limitation," the text quite plainly calls it "an aggregate," as opposed to a "limitation."

Now, onto the second paragraph with begins "The foregoing limitations ..." What exactly are the "foregoing limitations"? That would again be the 15- and 18-mill "limitations" described in the first paragraph; but not "... aggregate of not to exceed 50 mills ..." as that is not a "limitation."

The assumption has always been that "50 mills" is also a "limitation," and thus the second paragraph excludes any "... city, village, charter county, charter township, charter authority or other authority, ..." from the 50-mill aggregate.

  • How does this violate the US Constitution? (That's a partial hint at an answer). – user6726 Nov 3 '16 at 20:27
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Background

I will note that the case you cite was decided in 1972 and has been cited by other cases that relied on its precedents in all appellate decisions in Michigan, and one federal trial court decision in Michigan over the last 44 years. The losing party tried to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the appeal later in 1972 because there was no issue of federal law involved.

Ultimate Conclusion

There is pretty much no way to change the holding of that decision other than to amend the provisions of the Michigan Constitution in question by the procedures set forth in the Michigan State Constitution.

Indeed, the basic premise of your question, "a long-standing Michigan Supreme Court ruling might possibly be incorrect" is basically definitionally wrong. When the Michigan Supreme Court interprets a provision of the Michigan State Constitution, its decision is, by definition, the correct interpretation of that language.

It isn't terribly uncommon for authoritative court decisions to conclude for a variety of reasons that the literal plain reading of constitutional text actually means something quite different than what the words actually say.

For example, the judicially interpeted meaning of the 11th Amendment to the United States Constitution (which is that states are entitled to sovereign immunity unless it is waived by the state or authorized by the United States or another state) is quite different from what the wording of the amendment says ("The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State."), which on its face simply slightly narrows federal court jurisdiction and says nothing on its face about sovereign immunity.

What you think those words should mean based upon a plain reading of the constitutional text is completely irrelevant.

Amending Michigan's State Constitution

Amending the state constitution is not easy in Michigan. It has been done only eight times since the current state constitution was adopted in 1963 - seven times pursuant to proposals made by the state legislature and ratified by the voters, and once in 1972 as a result of a citizens petition. It has been amended only twice since 1972.

Several methods can be employed to propose and ratify amendments.

Section 1 of Article XII states that:

Amendments to this constitution may be proposed in the senate or house of representatives. Proposed amendments agreed to by two-thirds of the members elected to and serving in each house on a vote with the names and vote of those voting entered in the respective journals shall be submitted, not less than 60 days thereafter, to the electors at the next general election or special election as the legislature shall direct. If a majority of electors voting on a proposed amendment approve the same, it shall become part of the constitution and shall abrogate or amend existing provisions of the constitution at the end of 45 days after the date of the election at which it was approved.

This is the easiest way to amend the state constitution if there is a bipartisan consensus to amend it.

Section 2 of Article XII says:

Amendments may be proposed to this constitution by petition of the registered electors of this state. Every petition shall include the full text of the proposed amendment, and be signed by registered electors of the state equal in number to at least 10 percent of the total vote cast for all candidates for governor at the last preceding general election at which a governor was elected. Such petitions shall be filed with the person authorized by law to receive the same at least 120 days before the election at which the proposed amendment is to be voted upon. Any such petition shall be in the form, and shall be signed and circulated in such manner, as prescribed by law. The person authorized by law to receive such petition shall upon its receipt determine, as provided by law, the validity and sufficiency of the signatures on the petition, and make an official announcement thereof at least 60 days prior to the election at which the proposed amendment is to be voted upon.

Any amendment proposed by such petition shall be submitted, not less than 120 days after it was filed, to the electors at the next general election. Such proposed amendment, existing provisions of the constitution which would be altered or abrogated thereby, and the question as it shall appear on the ballot shall be published in full as provided by law. Copies of such publication shall be posted in each polling place and furnished to news media as provided by law.

The ballot to be used in such election shall contain a statement of the purpose of the proposed amendment, expressed in not more than 100 words, exclusive of caption. Such statement of purpose and caption shall be prepared by the person authorized by law, and shall consist of a true and impartial statement of the purpose of the amendment in such language as shall create no prejudice for or against the proposed amendment.

If the proposed amendment is approved by a majority of the electors voting on the question, it shall become part of the constitution, and shall abrogate or amend existing provisions of the constitution at the end of 45 days after the date of the election at which it was approved. If two or more amendments approved by the electors at the same election conflict, that amendment receiving the highest affirmative vote shall prevail.

There were 3,156,531 votes cast for all candidates in the most recent election for Governor in Michigan in 2014. This means that 315,653 valid signatures would have to be on a petition requesting a constitutional amendment and experience in states where initiatives are common suggest that significantly more signatures than that would have to be collected in order to get that many valid signatures.

Section 3 of Article XII says:

At the general election to be held in the year 1978, and in each 16th year thereafter and at such times as may be provided by law, the question of a general revision of the constitution shall be submitted to the electors of the state. If a majority of the electors voting on the question decide in favor of a convention for such purpose, at an election to be held not later than six months after the proposal was certified as approved, the electors of each representative district as then organized shall elect one delegate and the electors of each senatorial district as then organized shall elect one delegate at a partisan election. The delegates so elected shall convene at the seat of government on the first Tuesday in October next succeeding such election or at an earlier date if provided by law.

The convention shall choose its own officers, determine the rules of its proceedings and judge the qualifications, elections and returns of its members. To fill a vacancy in the office of any delegate, the governor shall appoint a qualified resident of the same district who shall be a member of the same party as the delegate vacating the office. The convention shall have power to appoint such officers, employees and assistants as it deems necessary and to fix their compensation; to provide for the printing and distribution of its documents, journals and proceedings; to explain and disseminate information about the proposed constitution and to complete the business of the convention in an orderly manner. Each delegate shall receive for his services compensation provided by law.

No proposed constitution or amendment adopted by such convention shall be submitted to the electors for approval as hereinafter provided unless by the assent of a majority of all the delegates elected to and serving in the convention, with the names and vote of those voting entered in the journal. Any proposed constitution or amendments adopted by such convention shall be submitted to the qualified electors in the manner and at the time provided by such convention not less than 90 days after final adjournment of the convention. Upon the approval of such constitution or amendments by a majority of the qualified electors voting thereon the constitution or amendments shall take effect as provided by the convention

The next referendum pursuant to Section 3, Article XII is in the year 2026, and any proposed amendments from a constitutional convention called under that provision would not take effect until approved by voters which could happen no sooner than the year 2028. Voters declined to call for a constitutional convention in the years 1978, 1994 and 2010.

No Law Pased Only By The Legislature Can Overrule This Decision

The state legislature can't pass an ordinary law that overrules a Michigan Supreme Court interpretation of the state constitution either. And, even Congress can't pass a law that reinterprets language in a particular state's constitution that has been determined to be the correct one by the state supreme court.

No Other Court Can Overrule This Michigan Supreme Court Decision

The federal courts including the U.S. Supreme Court cannot overrule the Michigan Supreme Court on a question of Michigan state law. The lower courts of Michigan cannot overrule the Michigan Supreme Court on any question.

The Michigan Supreme Court Is Extremely Unlikely To Modify This Decision

The Michigan Supreme Court is extremely unlikely to overrule itself regarding a decision that has stood and been relied upon for 44 years since questions of statutory interpretation are usually given unusually strong respect as precedents to promote certainty, although it could change its mind if it wanted to.

Usually, though, a state supreme court only overrules one of its own past precedents if it becomes inconsistent with another line of cases and it eventually becomes clear that there are two or more inconsistent lines of precedents can't be reconciled with each other in some fact pattern that pits one line of cases squarely against another.

For example, in Colorado, earlier this year a older case holding that a defense called "laches" could not be used in child support cases collided directly with a newer Colorado Supreme Court case involving promissory notes that held that the defense called "laches" is available in every type of case in Colorado. When confronted with the conflicting precedents in a new case this year the Colorado Supreme Court resolved the conflict in favor of the newer holding, overruling the older one which states that "laches" did not apply to child support cases.

But, this is extremely unlikely to happen when the question involves the meaning of the precise wording of a highly technical property tax provision of the state constitution.

  • A federal court could overrule the Michigan Supreme Court if there were a question of federal law, though; the fact that the federal Supreme Court found no federal question in the 1972 case doesn't prevent it from finding a federal question in some future case. – phoog Nov 3 '16 at 20:59
  • In theory, yes. But given that the basic issue is whether local governments are or are not included in the language of a state constitution's cap on property taxes it is very hard to identify any way that this interpretation could violate the United States Constitution. Maybe at some point some federal law is interpreted to prohibit property tax caps all together, but even that wouldn't change the meaning of what this particular Michigan Supreme Court ruling says that this particular paragraph means under Michigan law. – ohwilleke Nov 3 '16 at 21:02
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    @Dan Yes. There is no mechanism short of amending the Michigan constitution, or the Michigan Supreme Court defying centuries of standards regarding the idea of "stare decisis" (the doctrine which governs when a court overrules its own precedents), to change things. Post-mortem exonerations of men who have been executed by state supreme courts are far more common. There is really no gray area whatsoever in this case. – ohwilleke Nov 3 '16 at 21:11
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    Correct. All sorts of words are full of gray areas until they are litigated and decided. The case that you cite applies until the meaning has been authoritatively decided by an appellate court. Once an authoritative interpretation of the language has been made by an appellate court, however, finality principals take over and all of the interpretive principles go out the window. Rule Zero is that what the state supreme court says about a state constitution controls over everything else. – ohwilleke Nov 3 '16 at 21:25
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    Yes. Or, better yet, come up with a completely new rule to displace the existing one which isn't a great piece of constitutional legislation in the first place. – ohwilleke Nov 3 '16 at 21:43

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