- Associated Press - Monday, September 21, 2015

The Detroit News. Sept. 15, 2015

Keep day in court to just one day.

Local courts in Michigan now have an option for resolving civil disputes more quickly, and with less inconvenience and uncertainty for all parties.

The Michigan Supreme Court authorized local circuit courts to voluntarily use summary jury trials for settling some civil lawsuits. If everyone agrees, summary jury trials limit the time in court and pre-determine the range of any awards ordered by the jury.

Doug Van Epps, director of the Supreme Court’s office of dispute resolution, says brevity and cooperation are the keys to success.

“The whole concept is to have an abbreviated trial that finishes in one day,” he says.

Every aspect of a civil hearing is shortened or reduced. In a four-day trial, attorneys might take a couple hours each for their opening statements. In the summary jury trials, they might take only 10 minutes.

The exact amount of time can vary because the Supreme Court guidelines give local officials flexibility. A number of things are negotiated before the trial begins, including the length of opening statements and a settlement range with maximum and minimum figures.

Both sides have to agree not only on the parameters of the trial but also on the settlements. If a jury finds for a figure higher or lower than the agreed upon range, either side can contest the decision. However, they cannot appeal the verdict if it falls within the agreed upon range, which is not initially disclosed to jurors.

Also, juries are downsized. A pool of only 10 jurors is established with six selected for the trial. For a verdict, only five jurors need to agree.

The idea for summary jury trials is not new. It goes back to the 1980s and they have been used in a number of other states.

However, Van Epps says the Supreme Court, in its effort to find more efficient ways to operate the judicial system, two months ago established guidelines for the trials here. He says the high court will monitor cases as they are conducted and review the findings.

The quick trial process is already receiving high praise. Detroit Attorney Steven Galbraith was part of the first summary jury trial conducted in Oakland County, a dog bite case where the only thing to be settled was the amount of the compensation.

“It worked out quite well,” Galbraith says. “It’s fast, efficient and cost effective - you don’t have costs normally incurred in a jury trial.”

Galbraith notes the process is intended for cases with smaller potential settlements, such as auto negligence, slip and fall lawsuits or property damage.

Summary jury trials are less conducive to major lawsuits where millions of dollars in settlements are at stake.

But for small, civil lawsuits, they promise to reduce court dockets, lessen the demand for jurors and save the litigants time and money.

The Supreme Court deserves credit for bringing efficiency to the legal process. Local courts should take advantage of this opportunity to make a day in court truly a day in court.

___

The Detroit Free Press. Sept. 18, 2015

Expelled Gamrat insults voters by vying for old seat.

Cindy Gamrat just doesn’t get it.

A week ago, when the members of Michigan’s House of Representatives spent 15 hours incinerating their chamber’s dignity in a marathon effort to oust her and fellow state Rep. Todd Courser, Gamrat surprised everyone forcing the vote that resulted in her expulsion.

Courser was the one most lawmakers expected to hang on to the bitter end. Gamrat seemed at least marginally more realistic about the dim prospect for reconciliation with her legislative colleagues, conceding via her lawyer that resignation might be her best exit option.

But in the end, it was Courser who took the initiative to walk out, and Gamrat who insisted that her colleagues push her out and slam the door in her face.

Back for more

Expulsion would seem humiliating enough to satisfy even the most self-flagellant glutton for martyrdom. But Thursday Gamrat upped the ante, declaring her candidacy for a special election to fill the vacancy created when her colleagues kicked her out.

Nothing in Michigan law bars a lawmaker expelled by his or her colleagues from appealing that decision to the electorate. Former state Sen. David Jaye, the only state senator to get the heave-ho from his peers, did so after his 2001 ouster, finishing a distant runner-up in a special election overshadowed by the 9/11 terrorist attack. Courser has until 4 p.m. Friday to join at least four candidates vying for the Lapeer County House seat he resigned.

Even so, a decent regard for either her constituents or her own future would have led Gamrat to sit this election out. By participating, she all but guarantees that her personal scandal will divert voters’ attention from more pressing issues such as roads, school funding, and auto insurance.

Checking the boxes

Gamrat’s decision to run is consistent with her tendency to see herself as the indispensable protagonist in a divinely inspired crusade, one whose lofty objectives dwarf the pedestrian concerns of other legislators. We use the word narcissist too casually these days, but it’s a diagnosable personality disorder whose symptoms - loss of perspective, grandiosity, a distorted sense of entitlement - are on vivid display in the e-mail correspondence Gamrat turned over to House investigators last month.

Few outside the House have made their way through that 800-page-plus record, but Gamrat’s decision to seek her old seat assures that it will get more scrutiny in the coming campaign. If Gamrat’s rivals seek detailed evidence of her unfitness for elective office, they’ll have a field day with the first-person record of her truncated House tenure.

But if Gamrat wants constituents to tell her to her face that her career in elective office has come to an end, so be it. She just shouldn’t be surprised if the showdown she’s demanded results in an even harsher verdict than the one her House colleagues have already delivered.

___

Port Huron Times Herald. Sept. 18, 2015.

Tax breaks for gun safety devices not enough.

Jonathan Kaufman, 3, found a loaded pistol in his dad’s closet. He died.

A 12-year-old mentally impaired boy near Kalamazoo took a shotgun from an unlocked gun cabinet. A woman sleeping in the next room died.

Thomas Belanger, 11, found a revolver in his grandfather’s dresser. He died.

In Hawks, a little town near Alpena, a 10-year-old died.

An Ann Arbor woman faces charges because one of her children was playing with a gun. When it went off, her 4-year-old was hurt. Thankfully, he didn’t die.

Those are only the headlines from Michigan, from this year.

Actually, when first reported, the headlines probably used the word “accidental.” There’s nothing accidental about it, and that is why the Ann Arbor mother faces criminal charges. It ought to be a crime when untended, unlocked, unsecured firearms are left within reach of unsupervised children. It’s more than a criminal shame when one of them gets his or her little hands on one.

We really hope and pray that a bill making its way through the Michigan legislature prevents at least some of the tragedies. The state Senate voted unanimously Thursday to exempt firearm safety devices such as trigger locks and gun safes from sales and use taxes until 2018.

Proponents say that making locks and safes more affordable could lead to fewer accidental shootings and gun thefts. But a Senate analysis is skeptical that a 60-cent tax break on a $10 trigger lock will really change gun owners’ behavior.

Analysts estimate the tax waiver could cost the state about $1 million in tax revenue. That seems like a good investment.

If only it were enough. Every gun picked up and fired by a child first passed through the hands of an irresponsible adult. Six percent more or less for the price of a lock won’t change much of that.

Instead of lower prices for locks, Michigan needs a law making it illegal to leave firearms in sock drawers, under beds or anyplace else a child can find one. It needs penalties as serious as the danger.

Although the gun lobby fights secure-storage laws, half of states have statutes holding gun owners liable when their firearms fall into youthful hands. Owners need to lock up their guns. Careless owners need to be locked up.

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The Petroskey News-Review. Sept. 18, 2015.

Sex scandal another example of state’s weak FOIA policy.

Enacted nearly 40 years ago, Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act is a vital tool for residents of this state to track what their government is doing and how their tax dollars are being spent.

At the local level, it gives citizens the proper oversight to ensure both staff and elected leaders of school districts, townships, cities and counties are doing their jobs honestly and effectively.

But when it comes to state government, there are glaring exemptions - our state lawmakers and governor are not subject to the law’s open records requirements.

This might not be news to you, as there are frequent reminders that these elected officials need not cooperate with a member of the public seeking information from their offices. Most recently, officials in the state House of Representatives denied access to an investigative report into misconduct by now-former state Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat, who were accused of misusing public funds in part to cover up their affair.

It baffles this editorial board that state legislators would impose such a policy on all other public bodies in the state except themselves. Sure, these aren’t the same lawmakers who passed the law in 1976, but every Legislature since then has had the opportunity to strengthen it and has not.

Not all records are sealed. Under the state Constitution, all financial records pertaining to taxpayer expenditures must be released, allowing any member of the public to inspect the state budget and similar documents. But correspondence between lawmakers, as an example, is not open to public review.

Legislators say their discussions often center on sensitive topics and to be most effective should not be subject to open records laws. In some instances, we agree, but a blanket exemption affords them all kinds of protection from public scrutiny.

A series of reforms passed by lawmakers in 2014 went into effect this year aimed at giving the Freedom of Information Act more teeth. Those changes set uniform costs that public bodies can assess citizens to recoup their costs for producing records. There were also revisions made to the process by which a person or organization may challenge the denial of a request, further compelling a public body to comply with the law.

Whether the changes truly improved the law is up for debate and until the policy covers all public bodies and officials, it isn’t sufficient. We agree there ought to be certain exemptions, but we can talk about those once light legally shines on the Legislature and our governor.

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