Michigan Supreme Court denies appeal in secret meetings lawsuit

The Michigan Supreme Court has declined to hear a case challenging the University of Michigan Board of Regents’ ability to hold closed-door “pre-meetings.”

The court’s denial leaves standing an appeals court ruling that gives the school’s governing body full discretion to determine what constitutes a formal meeting subject to open-meetings laws.

The Detroit Free Press sued the Board of Regents in 2014 hoping for a ruling that would require all meetings to take place in a legally mandated open forum, as opposed to the current system, which allows for decisions to be deliberated in closed door-sessions prior to the regents’ open-to-the-public gatherings.

Michigan is one of just three states with a constitution that confers nearly absolute autonomy to its public university systems. One 1999 ruling left a precedent for the appeals court to rely on.

That year’s decision in Federated Publications, Inc. v. Board and Trustees of Michigan State University held that the Michigan State University regents were permitted to hold informal meetings in the course of their search for a new university president.

The latest ruling extends that permission to all regents’ meetings, not just ones pertaining to presidential searches.

The appeals court decision on April 26 held: “Michigan’s Constitution insulates (the Board of Regents) from being required by the OMA to open its informal meetings to the public, and furthermore is empowered to define what constitutes a formal session.”

Public universities in Michigan, particularly UM, have long come under fire from newspapers and open-records advocates. The Michigan Daily, UM’s student-run newspaper, published a special report in 2011 detailing the school’s unusually high fees and long wait times for FOIA requests.

The Daily later reported that UM is out of compliance with state-mandated document retention laws, specifically pertaining to email. UM officials had previously reminded faculty and staff in a 2011 memo that internal emails pertaining to university business are indeed subject to open-record requests.

The latest ruling merely codifies what was a longstanding practice at UM. The school’s latest presidential search, which led to former Brown provost Mark Schlissel being named its 14th president, was conducted in nearly absolute secrecy. Many community members heard Schlissel’s name for the first time at the time of the official announcement.

Michigan’s seven-member supreme court was nearly united on the issue, voting 6-0 to decline hearing the case. Justice Richard Bernstein, the brother of current UM regent Mark Bernstein, did not participate.

The SPLC filed a brief in August asking the Michigan Supreme Court to hear the case.