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Contemptible

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The contempt hearing for Detroit City Clerk Jackie Currie last week turned into a carnival sideshow.

Currie was hauled before Chief Wayne Circuit Judge Mary Beth Kelly after Currie ignored a court order to postpone mailing out absentee voter applications, in bulk, to people who don’t request them. Many clerks across the state routinely send out such applications, and the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office has said it doesn’t see any problems with doing so as long as the guidelines are consistent and fair. Currie says she sends the applications to Detroit’s elderly and disabled so they can easily participate in elections.

But Kelly says the practice likely violates the law.

This is all part of a broader issue that ended up in court when Maureen Taylor, a candidate for City Council who didn’t make it past the August primary, filed a lawsuit. Among other things, she claims that Detroit’s voter rolls are filled with ineligible names, a situation that opens the door to fraud. If fraud were the intent, then absentee ballots would be a likely way to try and pull it off.

Kelly ordered that the mailing of ballot applications be delayed. Currie’s office ignored the order, so Currie was summoned to court last Wednesday and Thursday to explain just why that was. News Hits missed the first day, but we’re told that, when questioned about how and why the court order was violated, Currie repeatedly invoked her Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination.

We don’t know about you, but we find it a tad unsettling when public officials start pleading the Fifth.

On the second day of the hearing, Kelly found Currie in criminal contempt. The clerk could have been sentenced to 30 days in jail, but Kelly opted to impose the maximum fine of $250. “I wish it could be more,” the judge said.

But wait, there’s more. Two monitors, one nominated by Taylor and one by Currie, will be assigned to investigate what has happened regarding absentee ballots so far. Also, Wayne County election officials and Secretary of State staff will keep an eye on the counting of absentee ballots on election night next month.

After all this came down, Currie asked to address the judge. Contrition was not on her mind. The way she sees it, this is an attempt to prevent Detroit’s seniors and the disabled from gaining easy access to the voting process. “That hurts me to my heart,” a defiant Currie told Kelly.

Steve Reifman, one of Currie’s lawyers, tells News Hits that this is a voting rights issue, with the City of Detroit being singled out for treatment that the rest of the state isn’t subjected to. As such, he says, Currie will be seeking a resolution in federal court.

Outside of Kelly’s courtroom last Thursday, after the contempt ruling had been made, the media descended on Currie. She continued to paint this as a discrimination issue where Detroit, with its majority black population, is being told to stop doing something that others around the state are allowed to keep doing — never mind that Taylor, a welfare rights advocate, is black, as are many of her supporters.

News Hits asked Currie if she thinks it right for a public official, who’s sworn to uphold the law, to intentionally violate a court order. We also asked about the propriety of a public official — especially one currently seeking re-election, as Currie is — using the Fifth Amendment as a shield.

Instead of answering, Currie marched off. The media followed. At one point a TV cameraman got too close. “You better look where I’m going,” Currie snapped, “or I will slap your face.”

One thing’s for sure: This circus isn’t about to pull up stakes and leave town anytime soon.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or NewsHits@metrotimes.com

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