It was a fairly routine Michigan House committee hearing until a GOP lawmaker unexpectedly raised the idea of a poll tax, which hasn’t been legal in more than a half-century.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Dana Nessel was invited to appear before the House Judiciary Committee. The Democrat talked about the organization of her office and areas of focus, as well as pending civil asset forfeiture reform legislation during a 20-minute presentation.
However, at one point, the hearing took an interesting turn, as state Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain) asked Nessel about what’s commonly called a “poll tax.” That led to an exchange over constitutional law and fees for gun licenses.
“What are thoughts on the idea of the Legislature charging an administrative fee for citizens to vote?” LaFave said.
“Well, I haven’t really given it much thought,” Nessel responded. “But I would say this that it would seem to me to be unconstitutional because it’s voting tax in a matter. Right?”
“I would certainly agree,” said LaFave. “And voting is a fundamental right enshrined under constitutions plural.
“Pursuant to Article I, Section 6 of the [Michigan] Constitution it says that “every citizen has the right to keep and bear arms in the defense of himself and the state,” LaFave continued. “Similarly, would you say that it would be unconstitutional to charge an administrative fee for citizens to exercise their Second Amendment right?”
“Well, I guess that it would depend on what your interpretation of what the Second Amendment is,” Nessel said. “There is the phrase ‘an organized militia.’”
LaFave said he was “just talking about the Michigan Constitution, Article 1, Section 6: ‘Every person has the right to keep and bear arms in the defense of himself and the state,’” and not the U.S. Constitution.
“It doesn’t talk about militia there at all. Do you think it would be similarly unconstitutional to charge them an administrative fee?” he asked the AG.
“You know what?” Nessel said. “That’s something that I have never really thought about. But you I’ll tell you what, if you’d like, I’m happy to investigate that matter for you. If you’d like an opinion on it, I’m happy to talk with my staff and we can get back to you and give a more formalized opinion.”
Poll taxes were abolished by the 24th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1964. The laws were traditionally enforced in southern states and often prevented African-Americans from voting.
Eli Savit is an attorney and an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan Law School whose areas of expertise include appellate and Supreme Court litigation. He tweeted in response to the exchange:
“Ummmmm…It’s unconstitutional to impose an ‘administrative fee for citizens to vote’ because the 24th Amendment expressly prohibits poll taxes. There’s no similar amendment for ‘weapon taxes.’
It's unconstitutional to impose an "administrative fee for citizens to vote" because the 24th Amendment expressly prohibits poll taxes.
There's no similar amendment for "weapon taxes." https://t.co/TqE9g1wsei
— Eli Savit (@EliNSavit) February 19, 2019