As part of Michigan Radio’s ongoing election coverage, on Thursday and Friday, Morning Edition and Stateside are featuring interviews with candidates running for state attorney general.
Dana Nessel is the Democratic candidate for attorney general. She has worked as an assistant prosecutor in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office. She also has experience as a defense attorney. Her case challenging bans on same-sex marriage and adoption in Michigan became part of the cases that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
DANA NESSEL: I’ve been suspect of this investigation quite frankly from the beginning. I think a lot of this has to do with political expediency instead of justice. I want to re-review the investigation. I want to have career prosecutors, defense attorneys, retired judges, people who are not campaign contributors to any of the potential targets of the investigation, which frankly troubled me about Todd Flood because he had been a donor to Rick Snyder and I think if you’re going to be free of a conflict of interest, you shouldn’t have that as a conflict for certain. I’m going to take a second look at the investigation, make certain that all of the people who have charges pending have been charged properly and look to see if there’s anyone who should have been charged, but who hasn’t been.
NESSEL: I have maintained from the very beginning that Line 5 needs to be shut down and that it is the responsibility of the attorney general to protect the state of Michigan and to protect the public against what I think will be the biggest economic and ecological catastrophe of our time.
DOUG TRIBOU: What would be the legal justification for you to jump in in that role?
NESSEL: That it’s violation of the easement. The easement is between Enbridge and the state of Michigan. And as the attorney for the state of Michigan, it’s your job to enforce that contract and Enbridge has violated that contract and so I would bring a case in the Court of Claims and ask for an immediate injunction that Line 5 be shut down.
TRIBOU: The civil rights law known as the Elliott Larsen Act passed in Michigan in the 1970s. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission announced it would begin treating LGBTQ people as a protected group under the act – following guidance from some federal courts who have said that could fall under sex discrimination. Bill Schuette opposed that move. Where do you stand on that issue?
DN: I absolutely believe that the word sex as defined in the Elliott Larson Act encompasses sexual orientation and gender identity. And so I disagree with Bill Schuette’s AG opinion, requested notably by my opponent Tom Leonard who I know also disagrees, that LGBTQ people deserve to have rights under our state’s civil rights law. I think that statistically you’re talking about at least half a million people, maybe even more who are state residents that have not been protected up until this point.
TRIBOU: You’re on the record as being in favor of legalization of marijuana and have called the war on pot an "abject failure." Michigan Radio’s Steve Carmody recently did a series looking at other states that have legalized pot. He spent some time in Colorado. In his reporting, he found that law enforcement has seen some issues develop. One of them is enforcing laws about driving under the influence. One of the problems there is the challenge of the science of testing for drugs rather than alcohol. Another is illegal pot being grown and shipped out of the state. How would you try to support law enforcement agencies if those problems come to Michigan?
NESSEL: The thing is, we have lagged behind in testing, right? That’s why I’m encouraged by all the laboratories that are coming up with new and better ways to test for whether or not someone is under the influence of marijuana. And this can be utilized not just in terms of law enforcement, but also in the workplace. There are these saliva tests. They’re pretty non-invasive and they can be done roadside. They only take a few minutes for the collection of saliva and you can find out pretty quickly whether somebody has consumed within the last couple of hours. And hopefully we’ll have the scientific data collected to ensure that we can work with the Legislature to pass laws just as we have with the preliminary breath test. And I think that we will have those mechanisms in place very quickly.
TRIBOU: Recently the state Supreme Court heard arguments about the people who were wrongly accused of filing false unemployment claims. Now you have the state, which says it’s paid back the bulk of the money that was improperly garnished, pushing against a class action lawsuit on a technicality of when it was filed. And that’s what the arguments hinged on. How do you see that sort of thing where we know these people were wrongly accused, and then there’s this pushback from the state?
NESSEL: First of all, I take issue with the notion that those people have been paid back. I don’t think that’s factually accurate. This is a perfect example of how I think this office has operated in a manner where it’s more important to Bill Schuette to protect bad state actors than to protect the people who elected you and who you are sworn to protect.
And that doesn’t mean using any kind of argument possible to defend the illegal actions of a government agency. Justice sometimes means settling those cases. Justice sometimes means admitting the government acted in error.
TRIBOU: If elected, there’s a good chance you could be serving while Republicans maintain control in both houses of the state Legislature. And you’d be in charge of enforcing laws that have been enacted in recent years by that Republican majority. Are there laws that would be hard for you to enforce?
NESSEL: It’s not about my political preferences. It’s about upholding the Constitution. If you have laws that flagrantly violate the Constitution, I don’t believe that it’s your job as AG to just come up with whatever specious arguments you possibly can to defend a law that is flagrantly unconstitutional, that violates the Constitution. It is your job to uphold and defend the Michigan Constitution and the United States Constitution. And so in those cases where the state Legislature has recklessly disregarded tenets of the Constitution, I think that it’s unethical to defend those laws.
TRIBOU: Is there one that pops out to you that fits that model that you just described?
NESSEL: There is and let me give you an example of one we just saw. It had to do with the effort to rob teachers of three percent of their pensions.
TRIBOU: That's the case where the state set aside three percent of teachers' salaries to cover for long-term benefits, but that money was eventually returned after a court case.
NESSEL: That was indefensible. It violated the Michigan Constitution. Now the AG defended it. I believe he finally pulled out when he got to the Michigan Supreme Court, but it lost zero to seven with five Snyder appointees on that court and so in my opinion, that would be the kind of case where you really could step forward and say I’m sorry, but there’s no viable defense here and I’m not going to waste millions and millions of dollars of state taxpayer’s money to defend a law which simply has no viable defense.
Editor's note: Enbridge Energy is a corporate sponsor of Michigan Radio.