April 26, 2018 rss
header twitter link facebook link home link
View Resource Guide and Job Postings

Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

‘Eternal General’
Returns to the Battle

October 21, 2011

Frank Kelley is worried about the future. Not his future — ours. He thinks our constitutional rights are being taken away and, last week, decided to do something about it.

The longest-serving state attorney general in American history sent a lengthy letter to opinion leaders in the state.

“I am writing you today because over the last few years, the courts have eroded many basic protections of our laws and constitution that I fought to uphold,” Kelley wrote. Those include, he continued, essentially weakening the principle of one-man, one-vote through outrageous gerrymandering.

He’s even more dismayed at a Michigan Supreme Court ruling upholding a law requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls, something he argues is both unconstitutional and being done only to discourage Democratic-leaning people from voting.

And he thinks the new law taxing pensions is a blatant violation of the Michigan Constitution — and notes that this has nothing to do with today’s partisan politics or how he feels about Gov. Rick Snyder. Indeed, Kelley issued a formal opinion saying pensions couldn’t be taxed back in 1991, and courts then agreed.

Frank Kelley’s letter is noteworthy for a number of reasons. When an attorney general issues a legal opinion, it is, as he notes, “binding on the state and its agencies, unless overruled by a court of record.” And nobody has ever issued as many official opinions about the constitutionality of both proposed and passed Michigan laws as the “eternal general,” Frank Joseph Kelley.

Naturally, that’s partly because nobody ever has served as long. Kelley spent 37 years as Michigan attorney general (1962-1999), longer than anyone in any state in U.S. history.

He was elected 10 times, and stepped down voluntarily, though he legally could have served one more term. Now nearly 87, he is still healthy, vigorous, and gradually phasing out of the law and lobbying firm he co-founded after retiring, Kelley Cawthorne.

“I don’t have any problems; I’ve been successful enough since leaving office that I can keep voting like a Democrat and living like a Republican,” he likes to say. But he isn’t happy about the way things are going. “During my time in office, I truly tried to serve the people,” he writes. “The best report card I could have is that during my time in office, very few of my opinions were ever overturned.”

They are overturning them now, however. He is especially angry over the Michigan Supreme Court’s ruling in 2006 that it was perfectly legal to require citizens to show photo ID before voting.

“I held this to be an unconstitutional interference with the absolute right for citizens to vote,” he writes. He issued that ruling back in 1997. Those who wanted the requirement claimed it would prevent fraud. He said that was nonsense.

“I always did my homework,” Kelley said, adding that, “before I wrote my opinion, the director of Michigan elections informed me on more than one occasion that there never had been a case of voter fraud at a voting place in the history of Michigan.”

The former attorney general approvingly quoted a recent New York Times editorial, which said, “the only reason Republicans are passing these laws is to give themselves a political edge by suppressing Democratic votes.”

Studies have shown that poor and less-educated voters, and those who may owe taxes, for example, are often reluctant to show picture ID, fearing incorrectly that elections workers may report them.

That train, however, has clearly left the station. The Michigan Supreme Court has yet to rule on the constitutionality of the pension tax passed earlier this year. Kelley doesn’t object to the state seeking more revenue. But this is, he feels, an illegal way to do it.

Twenty years ago, “I reviewed this matter and concurred with other legal minds who came before me. I held that the accrued financial benefits of a pension plan were a contract obligation under the State Constitution of 1963…and could not be diminished or impaired by the legislature.”

“This law should clearly be struck down,” Kelley says. “But it is now before the Michigan Supreme Court, which the University of Chicago law school has called the most partisan in the nation.

“Unfortunately, this threatens to be yet another example of the taking away of a clear constitutional right.”

What bothers the former attorney general most, however, is not a state case, but a federal one — the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in the Citizens United case that said corporations could engage in essentially unlimited campaign spending.

“Frankly, I am strongly in favor of private enterprise. [But] I have always held that our country and its constitution were created for our citizens’ freedom and protection, not for the advancement of the interests of private, for-profit corporations,” he argued.

Corporations are not people, he argues. “Their charters don’t require them to protect the health and welfare of society’s citizenry. It is the government’s duty to do that,” he added.

After I read the letter, I talked with the author. He said he wrote it because, simply put, “I want the future citizens of America to enjoy the same freedoms we knew.”

Over the last decade, he says, the average citizen has suffered “a loss of control [over] his or her destiny and freedom.”

Whether you agree or not, that certainly bears thinking about.

Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

October 20, 2011 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry Tags: , ,

14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 BB // Oct 21, 2011 at 7:30 am

    After your recent columns on Mr. Kelley, Mr. Clarke, and Ms. Stabenow, how about a few regarding principled folks on the right profiled in a similarly heroic manner?

  • 2 13Volcanoes // Oct 21, 2011 at 9:20 am

    Mr. Lessenberry, I appreciate your ability to use so many different sources for so many different topics. I really enjoyed this article about Mr. Kelley because it helps show the difference of opinions, ethics, attitudes, commitment, etc. from his generation to mine. I truly wish my generation was more like the previous. I am kind of concerned for our future.

  • 3 Peter Eckstein // Oct 21, 2011 at 11:20 am

    Congratulations to Frank for still fighting the good fight. I am not sure that my private-sector pension is protected from taxation by the state constitution, but I agree 100% with Frank’s strong position on voter ID cards and Citizens United. If corporations are people, why don’t we just let them vote–assuming, of course, they can produce a vadlid ID card.

  • 4 Sylvia McCollough // Oct 21, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Thank you for the wonderful article on our Honorable Frank Kelley. Always a pleasure to hear Frank is still standing up for our rights and constitution. Today’s politicians could learn a great deal from Frank Kelley. Tell ’em like it is Mr. Kelley!! You always have…..love it!!

  • 5 David Waymire // Oct 21, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    BB: I’d be interested in who you might feel fits that bill?

  • 6 James Brazier // Oct 21, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Frank Kelley’s entry into the fray regarding voting and corporate political rights show how there are political consequences to US Supreme Court decisions. It is tragic that the decision have favored policies that harm the poor and help the rich. I can certainly identify with his outrage. We should be alarmed about the Michigan Supreme Court being rated as the most partisan in the nation. Such politicization can only be restrained by the ethics of individual justices, elected or appointed.

  • 7 Polaris Snowmobile Parts // Mar 12, 2014 at 3:46 am

    921716 691813Some truly amazing articles on this internet site , appreciate it for contribution. 624205

  • 8 cheats guide // Mar 13, 2014 at 10:45 am

    It¡¯s really a nice and useful piece of information. I¡¯m glad that you shared this helpful info with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

  • 9 Check This Out // Mar 14, 2014 at 10:59 am

    Wow, this paragraph is fastidious, my sister is analyzing these kinds of things, so I am going to inform her.

  • 10 cheats video // Mar 14, 2014 at 11:07 am

    Woah! I’m really enjoying the template/theme of this site. It’s simple, yet effective. A lot of times it’s tough to get that “perfect balance” between user friendliness and appearance. I must say that you’ve done a awesome job with this. In addition, the blog loads extremely quick for me on Chrome. Exceptional Blog!



© 2007-2011 DomeMagazine.com. All rights reserved. Site design by Kimberly Hopkins, khopdesign, llc.