State high court wrestles with type size on petitions

 By Corey Williams 

and Kathy Barks Hoffman
Associated Press
LANSING (AP) — The Michigan Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a big dispute about the tiniest of issues: The size of the typeface on a ballot petition aimed at letting voters repeal legislation designed to right financially troubled cities.
Stand Up for Democracy submitted more than 200,000 valid signatures to put the emergency manager law repeal question before voters, but Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility argued the font size on the petition header was too small. The state Board of Canvassers deadlocked on the issue, but Michigan’s Appeals Court later said the question could go to voters. Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility then filed a request asking the state’s Supreme Court justices to overturn the appeals court ruling.
Wednesday’s arguments delved into technical details about fonts and type size as well as the history of printing. The justices will determine whether the issue appears on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
“Historically, with moveable type, this (printing block) is what determines the size of the type, not the actual letters,” Chief Justice Robert Young told John Pirich, the attorney representing Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility. “You cannot determine the font size by measuring the size of the type on the page.”
Pirich, however, said he didn’t accept the definition that the size of the type depended on the size of the printing block from the days of moveable type rather than the size of the letters printed.
Herbert Sanders, speaking on behalf of Stand Up for Democracy, said the size of the letters can’t be determined by the size of just one capital letter. Pirich used a capital “M” to show the typeface was smaller than the required 14-point font, but Sanders said other letters that had ascenders and descenders — such as the lowercase “y” or “g” — gave a truer picture of font size, especially for the Calibri-style type used on the petitions.
“When you go to your computer, and you click on 14 point Calibri, they have taken an ascender and a descender ... to determine 14-point type,” he said.
Sanders also argued that the issue should appear on the Nov. 6 ballot because so many voters had signed the petitions.
“Do we uphold the constitutional rights of the citizens of this state and allow them access to the ballot?” he asked rhetorically.
Justice Stephen Markman said the court must reconcile that constitutional right with the right of the state’s other 10 million citizens to know that laws passed by the Legislature are being followed.
“We’re trying to balance these competing rights,” he said.
Young pointed out the unusualness of the Supreme Court holding a July session. The deadline to get the wording on the ballot is Sept. 7, and the court is expected to rule before that date.
Supporters of repealing the law rode buses from Benton Harbor, Flint and Detroit to Lansing for Wednesday’s arguments. About 100 weren’t able to get into the courtroom and gathered outside the Hall of Justice.
“The people united will never be defeated!” they chanted as the hearing ended. Several people held signs, including one that said, “Let the people decide,” and another that said “Reject P.A. 4.”
Public Act 4 allows the governor to appoint someone to oversee a city or public school district’s finances if a review team determines a financial emergency exists. Emergency managers can institute new, tighter collective bargaining agreements without negotiating with unions. Managers also can sell off city assets and remove mayors and city councils from financial decisions.
Flint, Benton Harbor, Ecorse and Pontiac have emergency managers, as do the Detroit, Highland Park and Muskegon Heights public school districts. Each of the cities and school districts has a sizable budget deficit; opponents of the law point out that they also have sizable black populations.
Supporters of the law says it brings stability to cities and school districts in deep financial trouble by allowing an emergency manager to step in and take the steps necessary to put them back on an even financial keel.
Signatures for the ballot measure were collected from across the state, said the Rev. Charles Williams III, who’s with the National Action Network’s Detroit chapter.
“Many of our activists come from places like Ann Arbor and outer-ring suburbs,” he said. “People are engaged. Democracy is at stake, whether a person is black or white.”
But opponents of the law have to persuade enough people to show up and vote, said accountant Phillip LaBarge of Flint, who wants the Public Act 4 repealed because he worries it doesn’t have enough checks and balances.
“It’s not that I don’t like the emergency manager law; it’s that I think it gives emergency managers too much power,” LaBarge said. “He can do whatever he wants whether others like it or not. It’s not like we can vote him out if he does something awful. The only person who holds sway over him is the governor.”
Associated Press writer Corey Williams reported from Detroit.