Nessel breaks with Whitmer in Detroit literacy lawsuit

By: - June 7, 2019 4:57 pm

Tawanna Jordan, a DPSCD teacher, instructs students with ModEL teaching tool | Ken Coleman

Updated, 6:03 p.m.

Attorney General Nessel broke ranks with the governor in a lawsuit filed on behalf of Detroit schoolchildren to ask the federal courts to decide whether a minimally adequate education is protected by the Constitution.

“There are moments in our state’s and, indeed, our nation’s history when silence in the face of abhorrent circumstances is not an option,” Nessel said in a statement Friday. “Today is one such moment.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel at the NAACP dinner | Andrew Roth

The first-term Democratic attorney general filed an amicus brief in the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Gary B., et al v. Gretchen Whitmer, et al., arguing that a minimally adequate public education is an essential constitutional right.

“As Michigan’s Attorney General, acting on behalf of the general welfare of all the people — and particularly every child in this State — I am legally, morally, and personally compelled to advance this important concept,” Nessel continued.

The brief comes after attorneys on behalf of a group of Detroit schoolchildren filed a 2016 lawsuit in federal court against the state of Michigan. They alleged that they were denied access to literacy, and that literacy is a Constitutional right protected by the 14th Amendment.

The case began under GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration. In 2018, a federal judge in Detroit ruled that students did not have a constitutional right to a better education, the New York Times and other media reported.

The students’ attorney, Mark Rosenbaum, called Nessel’s brief a “development of the highest order,” the Detroit News reported.

Attorneys for Whitmer last month argued against Rosenbaum.

Deputy Solicitor General Eric Restuccia — who works for the Department of Attorney General, but is representing the Democratic governor — signed a motion that said the case should be dismissed.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District is now under local control, the brief said, and so the case should not be directed against the state of Michigan.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talks to reporters at the Lansing Brewing Co. | Nick Manes

Michigan had overseen Detroit’s finances for years. In 2013, the city filed for bankruptcy — the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

A spokeswoman for the governor responded in a written statement Friday, when asked by the Advance.

“As the governor has always said, she believes every child has a birthright to a good education,” said Tiffany Brown. “That belief was reflected in the brief she filed two weeks ago, when she rejected the position of the previous administration in this case. It’s also why the governor has offered the strongest education budget in a generation, with a laser-focus on literacy.”

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Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein

Michael Gerstein is a former Advance reporter covering the Governor's office, criminal justice and the environment.