DETROIT – A lower court judge does not have the authority to issue indictments in the Flint water scandal, the Michigan Supreme Court found Tuesday, invalidating charges against former Gov. Rick Snyder, his health director and seven other people.
The unanimous opinion, in which one justice did not participate, calls for the cases against former state officials Nick Lyon, Nancy Peeler and Richard Baird to return to the Genesee Circuit Court for preliminary examinations.
In 2021, Genesee County Circuit Judge David Newblatt charged the group and six others – including Snyder – in the Flint water crisis without a preliminary examination, which allows for cross-examination of witnesses before trial. Appeals to Newblatt's decision were rejected, bringing arguments to the Michigan Supreme Court.
In May, attorneys argued in front of the court that Lyon, Peeler and Baird were entitled to preliminary exams. Justices appeared receptive to the argument, expressing skepticism that the defendants got due process in their trial.
In Tuesday's opinion, justices wrote judges lack the power to issue indictments.
"(State laws) authorize a judge to investigate, subpoena witnesses, and issue arrest warrants. But they do not authorize the judge to issue indictments. And if a criminal process begins with a one-man grand jury, the accused is entitled to a preliminary examination before being brought to trial," justices wrote, led by Chief Justice Bridget McCormack.
Flint managers appointed by Snyder switched the city's water source to the Flint River. State regulators said the river water didn't need to be treated to reduce its corrosive qualities. That was a ruinous decision: Lead from old pipes flowed through the system for 18 months in the city.
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A spokesperson for Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said the state's prosecution team is reviewing the court's opinion.
The opinion sends the cases back to the Genesee Circuit Court, where a judge rejected appeals from defendants to reverse the one-man grand jury indictments.
A one-person jury is an uncommon tactic used in criminal cases – it involves a judge reviewing evidence in secret to find probable cause to bring charges forward. The defense's opportunity to cross-examine witnesses typically is delayed.
"Put simply, the prosecution’s power to charge individuals and haul them into court is constrained by certain preconditions," Justice Richard Bernstein wrote in a separate but concurring opinion. "We recognize today that, under these circumstances, one of those preconditions is required by statute – a preliminary examination.
"The prosecution cannot simply cut corners in order to prosecute defendants more efficiently. To allow otherwise would be repugnant to the foundational principles of our judicial system."
The Flint crisis started in 2014 when lead, a neurotoxin particularly dangerous to children, leached into the water supply. As the city struggled with water quality, it saw an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease and deaths.
Lyon, former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, is charged with nine felony counts of involuntary manslaughter and one misdemeanor count of willful neglect of duty.
Peeler, who was an early childhood health section manager at MDHHS, was charged with two felony counts of misconduct in office and one misdemeanor count of willful neglect of duty.
Baird, who was Synder's senior adviser, was charged with four felony counts – perjury, misconduct in office, obstruction of justice and extortion.
All pleaded not guilty.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Flint water scandal indictments deemed invalid by Michigan court