Fighting for Consumers

Fighting for Consumers

One of the most important responsibilities of any Attorney General is protecting consumers in the marketplace.  Ever since General Frank Kelley (Mich. AG, 1961-1998) created the first consumer protection unit in the nation, people have expected their state attorney general to keep them safe when they purchase products and services.  Consumer protection is not a favor AGs do the citizens of their state; it’s their job.

And so last week when Attorney General Bill Schuette issued a press release touting his consumer protection efforts in light of National Consumer Protection Week, the casual reader may have thought Schuette was faithfully fulfilling his mission as the People’s Lawyer.  A closer look at the numbers, the law, and Schuette’s record, however, tells a different story. Here’s the scoop:  Schuette’s recoveries on behalf of Michigan consumers have plummeted dramatically from recoveries over the past decade.  Moreover, Schuette has been silent about the death of the Michigan Consumer Protection Act — his most important weapon to protect consumers from the harms they experience.

Let’s start with the numbers.  Schuette’s press release boasts:  “In 2012, Schuette’s Consumer Protection Division recovered over $1.3 million in consumer refunds and forgiven debts.”  That figure sounds high and perhaps even impressive.  After all, for most of us that’s alot of money!  In fact, however, it represents less than half the average annual recover by Michigan attorneys general going back a decade.  The numbers are available in the Biennial Reports of the Attorney General, a report that state law requires the AG to give the legislature every two years.

Here’s a summary of the recovery figures over the past ten years:


Again, Schuette’s numbers for 2012 represent less than half the average annual recovery over the past decade.

But the numbers are not the whole story.  Also included in Schuette’s Press release is a list of the top ten categories of consumer complaints for 2012.  What Schuette does not tell the public is that his primary weapon for protecting consumers — the Michigan Consumer Protection Act — was virtually interpreted out-of-existence by the state supreme court in 1999.  And rather than demanding a legislative fix, Schuette has been silent.  Think of it this way:  the AG issuing this top ten list is like a doctor who examines you, announces you have a serious health condition — and then walks out of the room with nothing else to say.

Although most Michigan citizens are unaware, in 1999 an activist supreme court in Lansing interpreted the Michigan Consumer Protection Act in such a way that it no longer affords any protection to the most common threats consumers face in the marketplace.  In most respects,the Michigan Consumer Protection Act is dead.

Moreover, a 2009 study by the Consumer Law Section of the Michigan Bar Associationconcluded that the Attorney General lacked the power to address the vast majority of complaints that make up the top ten list in 2008.  The report’s conclusions remain relevant today:  although the order has switched, the same ten categories appear in 2012 that appeared in 2008.

The report concluded:  “Michigan’s central consumer protection law is now useless in addressing at least 72% of the businesses that Michigan consumers complain about most.”

And so if one of the AG’s most important jobs is protecting consumers, and his most important weapon in that fight no longer exists, why is Bill Schuette silent?  After all, the solution is simple:  the legislature could pass a bill one sentence long to restore the Michigan Consumer Protection Act.  Bill Schuette should be pounding the door of the legislature every day demanding the House and Senate restore this law.  And yet when your corporate donors benefit from the status quo and lack of accountability, it’s perhaps not surprising that you are silent.

So what should we expect from an AG for Us? An AG for Us would make consumer protection a top priority, reflected in the amount of money recovered for consumers.  And an AG for Us would lead the fight to restore the Michigan Consumer Protection Act.  The Michigan Attorney General has the opportunity not only to work with state legislators to introduce legislation that would once again keep Michigan citizens safe in the marketplace, but the AG also has a microphone and the opportunity to educate the public about what happened, how they were hurt, and how they can be protected once again.  The AG — like no one else in this state — can build the public support necessary to restore this vital law.  On paper, the Michigan Consumer Protection Act is one of the strongest in the nation.  And with leadership in the AG’s office, Michigan citizens can once again have confidence that the People’s Lawyers is on their side.

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