Casino Proposal Constitutionality Questioned in Court

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Before a proposal to build eight new casinos in Michigan can go on the ballot, it has to get through the courts.

Attorneys from both sides of the issue argued their cases in front of the State Court of Appeals on Monday.

“I don't think that our opposition has proved that we've violated anything,” said Emily Palsrok, spokesperson for Citizens for More Michigan Jobs, the main group in support of the proposal. “We feel very confident in our wording, and over half a million registered voters signed our petitions and would like to see this issue on the ballot in November.”

The group opposed to it, Protect MI Vote, represents the existing Detroit and tribal casinos. They argue the proposal is unconstitutional because it illegally tries to re-write a voter-approved law, and they fear the public won’t even know what they’re voting on if the proposal stays written like it is.

“The true goal of this proposal is being concealed from the voters,” said Peter Ellsworth, legal counsel for Protect MI Vote. “People think it is, because this is the way it's being presented, as simply an authorization for eight new casinos, but not a rewrite of the whole Gaming Control Law, and it's a substantial reduction in the regulatory authority in the state that would occur.”

Ellsworth argues it will not only amend the state constitution, but also the voter-initiated Gaming Control Act approved in 1996. His team said it’s unconstitutional for one ballot proposal to do both.

“This is all about protecting Michigan's constitution, and doing what's right,” said John Truscott, spokesperson for Protect MI Vote. “They are not complying with the constitutional language in terms of how you put something on the ballot.”

They say voters need to know the changes that could take place for the new casinos. Those include the properties automatically being awarded liquor licenses, increasing the tax amount, and not requiring the same background check process that’s currently in place for casinos.

“You could have a member of organized crime, you could have Colombian drug cartel owning some of these casinos legally,” Truscott said. “So it's going around all these current laws that are meant to protect the people of Michigan and just eviscerates them.”

Court of Appeals Judge Peter O’Connell expressed concern over this portion of the proposal. During the oral argument from Citizens for Michigan Jobs’ legal counsel, O’Connell asked if Vito Corleone - the fictional Godfather character - could own one of these casinos.

Palsrok said that’s not true, and Citizens for More Michigan Jobs isn’t trying to hide anything from voters.

“Our language is very clear, we think we're being very transparent with everything,” Palsrok said. “We've handed over who our supporters are, where our locations are. We're saying we want to open eight new casinos and that's what we're asking voters to look at. Do you want these eight new casinos? Do you want these 17,000 more jobs in the state, do you want this $360 million in revenue?”

She said this lawsuit is really just an attempt from current casinos to prevent competition.

“This is another tactic on their behalf,” Palsrok said. “They don't want more casinos to compete with. They're choosing to take it to the court, but we still feel confident in our language.”

Ellsworth said casinos just aren’t the answer.

“The casino market in Michigan really is at the saturation point now,” Ellsworth said. “I mean, we've had one casino that went into bankruptcy in Detroit. I don't know how much more casino gaming this state can take.”

The other locations proposed include downtown Grand Rapids, Clam Lake Township near Cadillac, and Clinton Township near Mt. Clemens.

The Court of Appeals will need to decide soon whether the proposal is constitutional, as ballots are printed in September.

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