This decision brings several potential problems for the environment and environmental advocates. First, in the event that a local environmental stakeholder group (like a neighborhood association) is not notified of an event that could result in an environmental decision (like a public meeting where a local government is deciding if they should lease local forest land to a developer), then the stakeholder group cannot claim due process rights unless their life, liberty, or property is affected by the outcome of the decision.
Additionally, this decision also held that Michigan courts must use a much stricter level of review when dealing with cases surrounding environmental statutory regulations. If the case does not allege a constitutional violation, then the courts cannot use equitable jurisdiction. Because equitable jurisdiction generally favors a plaintiff in these situations by generating a “more fair” ruling, the likelihood that an environmental advocate would prevail in these cases is seriously reduced.
A dispute arose regarding the number of signatures needed for a consolidation petition to maintain a historic and well-established drain. Elba Township alleged that the Gratiot County Drain Commissioner violated the Michigan Drain Code by acting upon a consolidation petition that lacked the required number of signatures. Further, the plaintiff alleged that they were given insufficient notice of the meeting that ultimately resulted in the decision to move forward with the consolidation, violating their due process rights. The Court found that both trial and appellate courts had incorrectly exercised equitable jurisdiction* when analyzing the issue of signature requirements. The Court ultimately reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals, refusing to settle the signature requirement dispute but holding that the defendant did not violate the Drain Code or due process.
*equitable jurisdiction = an old English system of jurisprudence in which judges based decisions on general principles of fairness in situations where rigid application of common-law rules would have brought about injustice.
In March of 2009, Dennis Kellog filed with the drain commissioner a petition signed by five property owners seeking the consolidation, maintenance, or improvement of the No. 181-0 drain and its tributaries. The commissioner decided to undertake a major maintenance and improvement project regarding the drain, and he appointed a Board to hear evidence and determine the appropriateness of the proposed actions. The hearing was held on May 4th, 2010 after all municipalities located within the No. 181-0 drain district were notified of the date, time, and place of the hearing.
At the hearing, the Board voted to approve the project, and the defendant filed a final order of determination for the project. On November 8th, after the Board proceedings but before the final order of determination, the plaintiff filed a complaint alleging that the consolidation violated the Drain Code because the petition was only signed by 5 property owners, rather than the 50 that the plaintiff alleged was required. In addition, the plaintiff argued that the notice of the Board meeting did not fully inform the property owners that would be affected by the project, therefore violating their due process rights.
The trial court ruled in favor of the defendant on both the signature and notice issues. The Court of Appeals reversed this ruling, holding that the Drain Code required 50 signatures for a consolidation petition and that the notice was misleading, therefore violating due process. The Court of Appeals further held that the signature deficiency allowed it to exercise equitable jurisdiction because the failure to secure the needed signatures meant the defendant lacked jurisdiction to undertake the project. The defendant appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court.
First, did the appellate court err in exercising equitable jurisdiction in this case? Second, how many signatures does the Drain Code require for a drainage-district consolidation petition? Third, did the notice given by the defendant satisfy the constitutional requirements of due process?
The Supreme Court unanimously held that the appellate court erred in applying equitable jurisdiction to the signature requirement because it revolved around a purely statutory question regarding a purely statutory requirement (whether the law explicitly stated how many signatures were required). They ruled that, unless the dispute involves a constitutional violation, equitable jurisdiction cannot be used under this statute. The plaintiff did not allege a constitutional violation, therefore the Court reversed the appellate court’s ruling, but did not provide a ruling of their own on this issue.
Conversely, the Court ruled that the due process question could be heard using equitable jurisdiction because it implies a constitutional concern. However, the Court held that since the Board meeting did not pertain to the deprivation of life, liberty, or property, a failure to fully notify the plaintiffs did not infringe on their due process rights.