GOP attorney general hopefuls seek to overturn landmark contraception law, want election ‘audit’

By: - February 20, 2022 9:19 am

GOP attorney general candidate debate, Feb. 18, 2022 in Alpena. From L-R: Former Speaker Tom Lenard, Rep. Ryan Berman and attorney Matthew DePerno | Screenshot

It may have been the last question of last week’s debate for the three men seeking the GOP nomination for Michigan attorney general, but the inquiry seeking their stances on a 1965 Supreme Court ruling has garnered the most attention. 

The question concerned the high court’s decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, a landmark decision that struck down Connecticut’s ban on the sale of contraception. Citing a “right to marital privacy,” Griswold helped to pave the way for 1973’s Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion that many experts expect will be overturned or gutted by the right-wing-majority Supreme Court  this year. 

However, at Friday night’s forum at Alpena Community College, all three candidates — Former House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt), state Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp) and Kalamazoo-based attorney Matthew DePerno, indicated they thought the issue was wrongly decided and trampled on states’ rights. 

Speaker Tom Leonard gives his goodbye speech to the Michigan House as Gov. Rick Snyder looks on, Dec. 20, 2018 | Michael Gerstein

After seeking clarification as to what the Griswold decision was, Leonard was the first to respond. “This case, much like Roe v. Wade, I believe was wrongly decided, because this is…it was an issue that trampled states’ rights and it was an issue that should have been left up to the states.” 

Berman then echoed that, after indicating that he was unaware of the decision.

“You know, what? I wasn’t familiar with Griswold vs. Connecticut, but I’m an advanced legal researcher, so I pulled it up real quick to look what it was about,” he said. “And it says the court ruled that the Constitution did in fact protect the right of marital privacy against state restrictions on contraception. Again, I would have to look more into it and the reasoning behind it, but I’m all about states’ rights and limiting federal, and especially federal, judicial activism.”

DePerno followed suit, saying, “I didn’t know we could have our phones up here.” 

The line drew laughter from the audience and prompted Berman to quip, “You gotta be quick.”

DePerno then continued, saying that the Griswold and Roe decisions were states’ right issues and predicted that the U.S. Supreme Court would rule that “the privacy issue currently is unworkable.”

 DePerno, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump and is known for espousing conspiracy theories, then finished with a flourish. 

“We need to start defending state rights as attorney generals, across this country,” he said. “Too many people, even in our own party, too many people have lost the idea of what states’ rights means. They haven’t read the works of our Founding Fathers. They haven’t read The Federalist Papers. They continue to push the idea that we need to give rights away to the federal government. We don’t. We need to take state rights back. We need to stand in our borders. When the feds come and try to take our rights, we need to stand as citizens in Michigan and hold the line and protect states’ rights.”

Attorney General Dana Nessel at the Mackinac Policy Conference, May 29, 2019 | Andrew Roth

While that drew a hearty round of applause from Friday’s audience, it prompted a less than celebratory response from the woman all three candidates are hoping to replace this November. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, tweeted out afterward it was “terrifying” that the three Republicans running for Michigan attorney general “just stated that they oppose the ruling in Griswold v Connecticut which outlawed prosecuting married couples for using contraception.”

Friday’s debate also tackled another issue that figures prominently in GOP politics, namely conducting a so-called “forensic audit” on Michigan’s 2020 election results. Despite over 250 state and local audits of those results which have confirmed President Joe Biden’s more than 154,000 vote victory over former President Trump, persistent unproven claims of widespread voter fraud remain a core message for Republicans seeking office.

There’s legislation sponsored by state Rep. Stevc Carra (R-Three River) for a so-called “forensic audit” and there’s also a ballot measure. Earlier this month, there was a small protest at the Capitol attended by GOP leaders including Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock.

Leonard, who lost to Nessel in 2018, said he fully supported such an audit. 

“I was a prosecutor in Flint for three years. There were times when tragic things would happen and you had to conduct an investigation to protect the integrity of the system,” he said. “When I look at a forensic audit, to me that’s what a forensic audit would be doing, is protecting the integrity of this system. Our republic can not function if 50% of our population no longer trusts that when they go to vote, it’s not going to count or it’s not going to be accurate.”

Berman burnished his credentials on the issue by saying he sponsored a budget amendment for $5.5 million to conduct a forensic audit, which would include interviewing voters themselves.

Ryan Berman

“In fact, it’s broader than that because it included canvassing and going out there and asking people who haven’t voted in 20 years and all of a sudden showed up in that election and ask them, ‘Hey, was this you? Did you vote?’ I called it a comprehensive statewide election integrity review. Who can be against an integrity review? We should all be secure in knowing our election can’t be compromised.”

Berman indicated, however, that the amendment was “ultimately shot down” by his party’s leadership in the House.

DePerno, who was involved in Arizona’s sham audit by Trump supporters, was much more specific in what he wanted a “forensic audit” to include, saying that in addition to “taking a deep dive into a computer system” he also wants to examine the paper used in the voting machines. 

“You can’t do one without the other,” he said. “Doing one without the other is essentially meaningless. You must do both. And I tell you, that’s why they always say to us we can’t see the paper ballots.” 

DePerno also falsely claimed that it was pointless to determine what happened in the 2020 election. 

“I know what happened because I did the work. I examined these systems. I know how fraud occurred in this state,” he said.

Those same assertions were dismissed last year in a report issued by the Republican-controlled Michigan Senate Oversight Committee, which determined DePerno’s conclusions were “demonstrably false and based on misleading information and illogical conclusions.”

DePerno also led the charge when it came to investigating Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for her policies toward caring for COVID-19 patients in state nursing homes, indicating he would seek charges and have her arrested.  

“We will investigate and prosecute Gov. Whitmer for what she did with the nursing homes. She sent people to nursing homes against the medical advice of doctors who have said that it was dangerous. People would die. She did it anyway. She did it for political reasons, make no mistake. That is misconduct of office at the very minimum,” he said.

Whitmer administration officials say they were following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines when they allowed nursing home residents who had been hospitalized with COVID-19 to return to those facilities as long as they were housed in separate units. While a state auditor general report later determined there were nearly 2,400 more long-term care COVID-19 deaths in Michigan than had been reported by the Michigan Department of Health & Humans Services (DHHS), Director Elizabeth Hertel argued that the tally included facilities that were not required to report their COVID-19 deaths to the state.

While Leonard and Berman also said they disagreed with the governor’s nursing home policy, both indicated that they would conduct full investigations before deciding whether or not to press charges. Leonard also used the discussion to take a shot directly at DePerno, saying that his statements would prejudice any investigation before it started. 

“Any person that’s running to be the chief law enforcement officials in the State of Michigan to stand here and say they are going to arrest someone on Day One, does not respect our system of justice,” said Leonard. “In fact, if there were ever charges brought against that individual, I can tell you the first thing the defense counsel is going to do. They are going to play the videos of that attorney general on the campaign stump making political promises that they’re going to arrest somebody and throw them in jail, and that case is going to be thrown out and that person is going to be acquitted.”

Trump-backed Kalamazoo attorney Matthew DePerno speaks at a right-wing rally calling for a so-called “audit” of the 2020 election at the Michigan Capitol, Oct. 12, 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins

Last month, DePerno sent out a graphic of Nessel in prison demanding to “Lock her up” in a fundraising pitch after she said that the fake Trump electors who attempted to enter the Michigan Capitol where the real Electoral College was meeting in December 2020 could be charged for violating the law.

Other issues in which there was consensus among the candidates included Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 pipeline which runs under the Straits of Mackinac. All three said they were in favor of moving forward with having a tunnel built around the aging line, while Nessel continues to pursue a lawsuit in federal court that would close it down.  

The trio also made clear they would lift any state or federal COVID-19 mandates still in place when they take office, although most restrictions have already been lifted.


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Jon King
Jon King

Jon King is the Senior Reporter for the Michigan Advance and has been a journalist for more than 35 years. He is the Past President of the Michigan Associated Press Media Editors Association and has been recognized for excellence numerous times, most recently in 2022 with the Best Investigative Story by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Cleary University. Jon and his family live in Howell.