By Curt Guyette
There were two questions at the heart of today’s oral arguments in Lansing before the Michigan Supreme Court, which is being asked to decide whether a referendum on the state’s controversial emergency manager law should be on the November ballot.
The first question: Does the heading on a petition signed by more than 200,000 registered voters comply with a law that says it “shall be” printed using 14-point type.
It would seem that’s an easily answered question.
Here’s the problem: When the current law was written in the mid-1950s, the issue was straightforward. As Chief Justice Robert P. Young Jr. repeatedly pointed out, back when the law was written, this referred to the size of the blocks into which pieces of moveable type were placed.
In other words, if the kind of dispute taking place now had occurred back then, you wouldn’t measure a particular letter as it appeared printed on the page, but rather the size of the block into which it was placed for printing.
And the blocks had to accommodate the full range of lettering, from the top of a capital “A” to the descending tail of a lowercase “g” or “j.”
In modern printing, those blocks no longer exist; font style and size are determined with the click of a computer mouse.
Lawyers for opponents of the proposed referendum — a business-backed group calling itself Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility — argued that the size of computer-generated lettering as it appears on the printed page is what matters these days.
But that flies in the face of the traditional method of calculation Young said was in place when the law was written.
Herbert Sanders — representing the union-backed group Stand Up For Democracy — contended that, if you consider the size of a virtual equivalent of block, from the ascender to the descender, then the font-size used “unequivocally” complies with the law.
John Pirich, lead attorney for Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, countered that only capital letters were used in the petition heading; lacking descenders none of those letters measured 14 points.
Do the justices want this to be a state where voters are allowed to exercise their constitutionally protected right to decide important issues such as the emergency manager at the ballot box, or do they want a situation where a dispute over something as small as two measly pica points — a mere 1/36th of an inch — is enough to thwart the democratic process?
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