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Michigan's Supreme Court weakened a case about Flint's toxic water against officials

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

People in Flint, Mich., are still seeking justice from a crisis that rocked the city in 2014. That's when the water supply became toxic with lead and bacteria poisoning. Some died, and many are still suffering the repercussions. And today, the state Supreme Court handed down a decision that has weakened a case against the officials who are allegedly responsible.

Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta joins me now to discuss. Hey, Rick.

RICK PLUTA, BYLINE: Hi.

SUMMERS: So we'll get to the developments in a bit. But if you could first, Rick, remind us about the details of this case.

PLUTA: Sure. So back in (inaudible), the city's water supply was put under the control of an emergency manager, and that manager made the decision to disconnect from the old water system - it was one that was shared with the city of Detroit - and instead started drawing from the Flint River. It was an effort to save money. What they didn't realize was that that switch caused lead in the old water pipes to leach into the water system, and that caused a lot of water contamination. People actually died from bacterial outbreaks. Other people had significant lead poisoning. Eventually, criminal charges were filed by the state attorney general against the governor and those who worked under him.

SUMMERS: OK. Was that an unusual course of action, filing charges against the governor and his staff?

PLUTA: This is a very unusual course of prosecution. Governors and their staff are not generally charged with crimes related to their official duties. Governmental immunity shields public officials from decisions made in the course of their jobs, including bad decisions.

SUMMERS: So now, Rick, take us to today. What does this ruling mean for this case?

PLUTA: Sure. It's a procedural update, but it is significant because it could actually break the case. The Supreme Court said today that charges against three former top state officials had not been issued correctly. Here's an attorney, John Bursch, and he represents one of those officials who ran the state Department of Health and Human Services.

JOHN BURSCH: But it's time for the nonsense to end. The attorney general has wasted millions upon millions of taxpayers' dollars and abused the public trust.

PLUTA: Basically, the Supreme Court chastised the attorney general for allowing a one judge grand jury to indict these officials. This is complicated and unusual. The process the attorney general used would have combined the judge and the prosecutor into one role. And the Michigan Supreme Court wrote a blistering opinion saying you need both of these roles. The chief justice called it, quote, "a star chamber" - you know, like from medieval times.

SUMMERS: So does that mean that these defendants, are they in the clear now?

PLUTA: Well, not necessarily. The state solicitor general, the lawyer who's in charge of the state's case, says her office will refile the charges to comply with the Supreme Court opinion, which will also mean that the prosecutor will have to tip her hand and show at least some of the evidence and some of the state's case.

SUMMERS: In the few seconds we have left, Rick, what does this mean for former Governor Rick Snyder?

PLUTA: Sure. To be clear, today's decision did not mention the former governor, Rick Snyder. However, as a result of the logic laid out in the decision, his attorney says they're going to ask for the trial court to dismiss at least some of the charges of misconduct in office. It's a separate but related case. So the attorney general is in a tough corner. To name just one issue, there's a statute of limitations on these charges.

SUMMERS: That is Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta. Rick, thanks for your reporting.

PLUTA: Oh, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.