In a unanimous ruling, the state Supreme Court today removed four veteran Warren city councilmen from a summer election ballot, declaring that their candidacies violated the city’s term limits law.
The opinion jolted the political atmosphere in Michigan’s third-largest city by instantly guaranteeing a new majority on the seven-member city council, one that could take a decidedly different path than that followed by the ousted incumbents.
Those who tried to skirt the city charter’s 12-year term limits -- Council members Robert Boccomino, Scott Stevens, Cecil St. Pierre and Steven Warner -- are allies of Mayor Jim Fouts.
The high court issued a sternly worded opinion that said the Michigan Court of Appeals erred in a 2-1 ruling on June 6 that said the council members’ names should remain on the ballot for the Aug. 6 primary.
“We conclude that the city Elections Commission had a clear legal duty to perform the ministerial act of removing the names of the challenged contestants from the ballots,” the ruling said. Five justices supported the opinion and two Republican members of the court, Justices Stephen Markman and Brian Zahra, issued a separate ruling concurring with the majority.
The city charter establishes 12-year term limits (three fourt-year terms) for council members but the four who have already served a dozen years or more, led by Council President St. Pierre, claimed that they could serve for twice that amount -- 24 years.
They argued that council members could serve 12 years as one of the five who represent a city ward, or district, plus another 12 years as one of the two at-large members, who represent the entire city. They argued that the two types of service consisted of two distinct elected offices, and that made the seven-member council a bicameral body, divided similar to the House and Senate in Congress.
The Supreme Court rejected that claim, siding with Macomb Circuit Judge James Maceroni, who ruled against the councilmen May 31. All seven council members meet together as a single legislative body and vote together, Maceroni noted.
The justices also found that the Court of Appeals improperly ruled that the city council decides who is eligible to seek office. The high court said that the legal provision cited applies only after an election, when a dispute arises about the voting results for council.
The defendants in the case were the Warren Election Commission, City Clerk Sonja Buffa and county Clerk Fred Miller.
After the Court of Appeals initially blocked a legal challenge on similar grounds in 2015, a new suit was filed last month by a council candidate, newcomer Connor Berdy.