Charges against former Michigan governor Rick Snyder, R, and other government officials linked to the Flint water crisis must be tossed out because of problems with the prosecution that included a “one-man grand jury,” the Michigan Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

Last year, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, D, appointed a group of prosecutors to examine whether crimes were committed when Flint’s water became contaminated with lead and possible Legionella bacteria, which can lead to several health conditions, including Legionnaire’s disease. The prosecution eventually sought an indictment of Snyder on charges of willful neglect of duty, to which he pleaded not guilty.

In its opinion issued Tuesday, the Michigan Supreme Court said a “one-man grand jury” consisting of Genesee-based 7th Circuit Judge David Newblatt “considered the evidence behind closed doors, and then issued indictments against defendants [and] defendants’ cases were assigned to a Genesee Circuit Court judge.”

The court noted that the accused people in one-man grand jury cases are entitled to a preliminary examination before being brought to trial and that the single-person grand jury is not authorized to issue an indictment that would initiate a criminal prosecution.

Laws allowing one-person grand juries were enacted because police agencies are sometimes unable to effectively enforce laws, the court said, especially when it comes to corruption by government officials.

The unanimous opinion sends the case back to the 7th Circuit Court.

Advertising

Michigan Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth T. Clement recused herself because she had been chief legal counsel for Snyder who was charged with willful neglect of duty in 2021, according to the Associated Press.

Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud said the prosecution was “not over.”

“We relied upon settled law and the well-established prosecutorial tool of the one-man grand jury, used for decades, to bring forward charges against the nine defendants in the Flint water crisis,” Hammoud said in a news release Tuesday. “We still believe these charges can and will be proven in court.”

Snyder’s legal team said in a statement to The Washington Post that “Nessel’s office egregiously mishandled these cases from the beginning.”

“As the Michigan Supreme Court makes clear, these prosecutions of Governor Snyder and the other defendants were never about seeking justice for the citizens of Flint,” the team said. “We will be moving immediately to dismiss all criminal charges against Governor Snyder based on today’s unequivocal and scathing Supreme Court ruling.”

Nick Lyon, a former Department of Health and Human Services director was among the three defendants who questioned the one-man grand jury.

Advertising

Lyon said in a statement via his attorney, Chip Chamberlain, that the Michigan Supreme Court ruling marked a “victory for public service” in the state.

“State employees should not be prosecuted or demonized for just doing their job,” Lyon said. “It is a great injustice to allow politicians – acting in their own interests – to sacrifice government servants who are performing their roles in good faith under difficult circumstances.”

Requests for comment from the other two defendants who questioned the one-man grand jury, former state health department manager Nancy Peeler and former Snyder adviser Richard Baird, weren’t immediately returned Tuesday afternoon.

The Supreme Court ruling also said the 7th Circuit Court made a number of errors that included denying defendants the right to motion for dismissal.

The justices wrote that a preliminary investigation is a critical screening device to ensure that there are grounds for a person to face criminal charges. Not doing so undermines basic notions of fairness, the court wrote.

Following the proper procedures for gaining justice for Flint residents is all the more necessary, according to the court.

Advertising

“The prosecution cannot cut corners – here, by not allowing defendants a preliminary examination as statutorily guaranteed – in order to prosecute defendants more efficiently,” the court said. “The criminal prosecutions provide historical context for this consequential moment in history, and future generations will look to the record as a critical and impartial answer in determining what happened in Flint.”

Flint is still dealing with the effects of deadly tainted river water that was sent to homes in a cost-saving measure. A dozen people died of a Legionnaire’s outbreak in 2014 during the crisis, though a 2019 investigation found that the death toll was probably much higher.

The Washington Post’s Kim Bellware and Brady Dennis contributed to this report.