Justice delayed: Michigan Supreme Court ruling restarts prosecutions related to Flint Water Crisis

The court ruled last week that the use of one-man grand juries violates the state constitution. The prosecution of former state health officials will essentially have to start over.

In this file photo, the Flint water plant tower is seen, Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022, in Flint. A Michigan Supreme Court order that charges related to the Flint water scandal against former Gov. Rick Snyder, his health director and seven other people must be dismissed is the latest development in the crisis that started in 2014. That was when the city began taking water from the Flint River without treating it properly, resulting in lead contamination.

The Flint Water Crisis began with government mismanagement. As a result, tens of thousands of people and thousands of children in Genesee County were exposed to lead. The overall impact is not yet known. Lead does not leave the body and can lead to a loss of cognitive function and developmental delays.

Civil settlements have put a small price to the suffering of Flint residents, but justice and accountability have lagged far behind.

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled last week that the use of one-man grand juries violates the state constitution. The prosecution of former state health officials – and former Gov. Rick Snyder – headed by the Michigan Attorney General’s office will essentially have to start over.


MichMash: State hits roadblock in Flint Water Crisis case


Kayla Ruble has been covering the Flint Water Crisis for national outlets since 2015 and is still reporting on it now for The Detroit News. She tells WDET’s Russ McNamara that justice for Flint residents varies from resident to resident.

“So much of the water crisis, the decisions that were made, happened in agencies at the state level, or at the county level, or state-appointed officials running the city,” Ruble says. “And so I think that feeling of a lot of this was decided by people outside of our city, and we’re the ones left with this effects that we want to see officials being held accountable. I think some sort of criminal prosecution is probably one of the only ways that they will really feel satisfied in terms of that level of accountability.”


Listen: Kayla Ruble on Flint officials, residents and activists’ reaction to the ruling.

 


Russ McNamara, WDET News: In the initial decision to start over from scratch and now going with the use of one man grand juries. Is this a huge mistake by Attorney General Dana Nestle and Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud, in making this switch, and now essentially having to start over?

Kayla Ruble, The Detroit News: I think there’s people that would say it was not a mistake. I think there’s people that would say it was a mistake. I’m not super privy to the thinking inside the Attorney General’s office. One interesting thing that I think often gets left out of the discussion is that during the first round of investigations, the [former Attorney General Bill] Schuette era, when those cases went to their preliminary preliminary hearing process, the preliminary hearing process took a very long time. [Former health director] Nick Lyon, I think, was in preliminary for almost a year before his case was bound over. It was a lot of days in court, it was very expensive. Tens of millions of dollars were spent on defense attorneys during that time period. So I do think there probably was some thinking that with the one-man grand jury, [the state] might be able to help avoid that really lengthy preliminary hearing process. I think, if that was sort of the thinking behind it, there probably be people that would have probably differing opinions on whether that was smart or not, I’m not a legal expert. So I can’t really say but I think there’s probably some interesting discussions to have around why they chose that route.

In your latest article for The News, you talked with Flint officials, residents and activists. What’s their reaction to this latest setback?

From people I talked to [recently], there’s anger. I would also say a lot of people were kind of shocked. Not that they didn’t necessarily know something like this could happen, but the decision kind of felt like it came unexpectedly. I think that anything [the ruling] has created a lot of uncertainty and [residents are] just sort of feeling like OK, it’s been eight years since this crisis started. Are we ever going to see justice?

What does justice even look like for the people of Flint at this point? It’s been so long since this entire process started. Will there ever be some sort of satisfaction that people were held accountable?

I can’t say whether people in Flint will ever be satisfied with whatever justice and accountability they end up with. And I think a lot of Flint residents would say that you can’t change what happened, like the water crisis still happened, no matter who gets held accountable for that. And I also think justice looks different to every single person in Flint. I think for some people, it’s literally just having the lead pipe fixtures in your home replaced, which wasn’t done through the program where they were replacing the service lines, I think everyone has sort of different things that would make them feel whole. But pretty much across the board, most people do not feel like they’ve been made whole. But I do think this baseline idea of someone being held accountable in some manner, for the decisions that they made, I think that’s something that Flint residents don’t feel like they have gotten or unsure if they will get and it’s something that’s very important to them. Because so much of the water crisis, the decisions that were made were happening in the agencies at the state level, or at the county level, or state-appointed officials running the city. And so I think that feeling of a lot of this was decided by people outside of our city, and [residents are] the ones left with this effect that we want to see officials being held accountable. I think some sort of criminal prosecution is probably one of the only ways that they will really feel satisfied in terms of that level of accountability.

Photo credit: Carlos Osorio/AP

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Author

  • Russ McNamara is the host of All Things Considered for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news to the station’s loyal listeners. He's been an avid listener of WDET since he moved to metro Detroit in 2002.