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The Michigan Supreme Court sided with a trio of former state officials charged for their involvement in the Flint drinking water crisis, issuing an opinion Tuesday that a lower court judge erred in using a "one-man grand jury" to issue indictments against the officials last year.
The unanimous opinion, with one justice not participating, 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 former Gov. Rick Snyder — for their involvement 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 for Lyon, Peeler and Baird argued in front of the Michigan Supreme Court that they were entitled to preliminary exams. At the time, justices appeared receptive to the argument — expressing skepticism over defendants getting due process in their trial.
Tuesday's opinion reflects that skepticism — justices wrote judges lack the power to issue indictments, especially without a preliminary exam.
"(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.
Michigan Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud said the prosecution team intends to continue its case against the defendant.
"We still believe these charges can and will be proven in court," Hammoud said in a statement.
Randall Levine, one of Baird's attorneys, applauded the court's ruling, saying in a statement Baird was "unfairly vilified" to appease the "justifiably angry" citizens of Flint.
The opinion sends the cases back to the Genesee Circuit Court, where a judge previously 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.
It's unclear whether the court's decision will affect other criminal proceedings where a judge acted as a one-person grand jury to issue an indictment.
Snyder's legal team will motion to have the charges against the governor dismissed based on the opinion, they said through a spokesperson Tuesday, calling the charges against the former governor "self-interested, vindictive, wasteful, and politically motivated."
Due to the significance of the case, Justice Richard Bernstein wrote in a separate but concurring opinion, prosecutors should have taken every necessary step to avoid any public scrutiny over the legal procedures.
"Put simply, the prosecution’s power to charge individuals and haul them into court is constrained by certain preconditions," Bernstein wrote. "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 water crisis started in 2014 when the city switched water sources and lead, a neurotoxin particularly dangerous to children, leached into the city's water supply. As the city struggled with water quality, it also 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, has been charged with two felony counts of misconduct in office and one misdemeanor count of willful neglect of duty.
Baird, who was considered Snyder's right-hand man as a senior adviser, has been charged with four separate felony counts — one of perjury, one of misconduct in office, one of obstruction of justice and one of extortion.
All have pleaded not guilty.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan Supreme Court: Judge erred in Flint water crisis indictments