Theile v. State

Decision Date29 May 2018
Docket NumberNo. 17-2275,17-2275
Citation891 F.3d 240
Parties Michael J. THEILE, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. State of MICHIGAN; Michigan Department of State; Bureau of Elections; Ruth Johnson, Secretary of State; Director of Michigan Bureau of Elections, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

ON BRIEF: Michael B. Rizik Jr., RIZIK & RIZIK, Grand Blanc, Michigan, for Appellant. Denise C. Barton, Adam Fracassi, Kendell S. Asbenson, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellees.

Before: MERRITT, WHITE and DONALD, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

BERNICE BOUIE DONALD, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiff-Appellant, the Honorable Michael J. Theile ("Theile"), is a Michigan state-court judge. In 2020, the year of the next election for the seat he now holds, Theile will be 71 years of age. Because the Michigan Constitution and the relevant Michigan statute prohibit a person who has attained the age of 70 from being elected or appointed to judicial office, Theile will not be eligible to run for re-election. See Mich. Const. art. VI, § 19 (3); Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.411. Asserting that this age limitation under Michigan law violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution, Theile asks this Court to dispense with rational-basis review of age-based classifications, and instead adopt intermediate scrutiny—a level of review he contends Michigan's judicial age restriction cannot withstand. In the alternative, Theile argues that even under rational-basis review, the Michigan age restriction fails to pass constitutional muster.

For the reasons set forth herein, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court granting Defendants-Appellees' motion to dismiss Theile's complaint.

I

Theile is a judge in the Family Division of the Genesee County Circuit Court in Michigan. Theile was appointed to the bench in November 2005, retained his seat by election in 2006, and was re-elected in 2008 and 2014. The next election for his seat will take place on November 3, 2020.

Under the Michigan Constitution, "[n]o person shall be elected or appointed to a judicial office after reaching the age of 70 years." Mich. Const. art. VI, § 19 (3). Likewise, the applicable Michigan statute provides, in relevant part, that "[a] person shall not be eligible to the office of judge of the circuit court unless ..., at the time of election, [the person] is less than 70 years of age." Mich. Comp. Laws § 168.411(1). Theile will be 71 years of age on the date of the next election, and is therefore ineligible to run. Theile declares that, "[i]f allowed by a change in the law, ... he will run for reelection on November 3, 2020."

On June 26, 2017, Theile filed a single-count complaint in United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, alleging that Michigan's constitutional and statutory age limitation on judges violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. His complaint named as defendants the State of Michigan; the Michigan Department of State; the Bureau of Elections; Ruth Johnson, Michigan's Secretary of State; and the Director of the Bureau of Elections. Michigan's judicial age limitation, Theile alleges, discriminates based on a characteristic that, "like gender, is ... immutable" and thus "deserves heightened scrutiny." In the alternative, Theile asserts, the age limitation cannot even survive rational basis review, because it is "no longer rationally related to a legitimate government interest."

Thereafter, Defendants-Appellees filed a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6),1 citing Supreme Court precedent holding that age is not a suspect classification and therefore such classifications are subject to rational-basis review. See Mass. Bd. of Ret. v. Murgia , 427 U.S. 307, 313-14, 96 S.Ct. 2562, 49 L.Ed.2d 520 (1976) ; Coleman v. Ct. of Apps. of Md. , 566 U.S. 30, 64, 132 S.Ct. 1327, 182 L.Ed.2d 296 (2012). Defendants-Appellees further cited Gregory v. Ashcroft , 501 U.S. 452, 472-73, 111 S.Ct. 2395, 115 L.Ed.2d 410 (1991), where the Supreme Court upheld a like age limitation, and Breck v. Michigan , 203 F.3d 392 (6th Cir. 2000), where this Court upheld the Michigan age restriction at issue here. Theile's response to the motion reasserted and further developed his argument for breaking with stare decisis , and reiterated that Michigan's age limitation fails heightened scrutiny, or even rational basis review.2

The district court determined that controlling Supreme Court and Sixth Circuit precedent foreclosed Theile's claim. See Gregory , 501 U.S. 452, 111 S.Ct. 2395 ; Breck , 203 F.3d 392. The precedential cases cited by the district court upheld an indistinguishable Missouri constitutional provision, Gregory , 501 U.S. 452, 111 S.Ct. 2395, and the Michigan restriction challenged here, Breck , 203 F.3d 392. This timely appeal followed.

II

We review de novo a district court's dismissal of a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6). Harkless v. Brunner , 545 F.3d 445, 449 (6th Cir. 2008). We construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, determining whether the plaintiff "undoubtedly can prove no set of facts in support of the claims that would entitle [her to] relief." Mixon v. Ohio , 193 F.3d 389, 400 (6th Cir. 1999) (citation omitted) (alteration added). We accept as true all factual allegations, but not "legal conclusions or unwarranted factual inferences." Id. (citing Morgan v. Church's Fried Chicken , 829 F.2d 10, 12 (6th Cir. 1987) ). The plaintiff must present a facially plausible complaint asserting more than bare legal conclusions. See Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) ; Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 677-78, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009).

III

It is undisputed by the parties that age classifications are generally subject to rational-basis review. (Appellant's Br.3 at 4-5, 7-23; Appellee's Br. at 6). That standard places a heavy burden on Theile to "show there is no rational basis " for the classification; by the same token, Defendants "need not offer any rational basis so long as this Court can conceive of one." Ziss Bros. Constr. Co. v. City of Independence , Ohio , 439 Fed.Appx. 467, 476 (6th Cir. 2011) (quoting Club Italia Soccer & Sports Org., Inc. v. Charter Twp. of Shelby , 470 F.3d 286, 299 (2006) ) (emphasis added).

While not entirely escaping discriminatory treatment, the aged "have not experienced a history of purposeful unequal treatment." Murgia , 427 U.S. at 313, 96 S.Ct. 2562 (citation omitted). Age, therefore, is not a suspect classification, and "rationality is the proper standard by which to test" an age limitation under the Equal Protection Clause. Id. at 312, 96 S.Ct. 2562. The Supreme Court has repeatedly reaffirmed the standard. See, e.g., Vance v. Bradley , 440 U.S. 93, 96-97, 99 S.Ct. 939, 59 L.Ed.2d 171 (1979) (holding a statute survives review unless the classification "is so unrelated to ... any ... legitimate purpose[ ] that we can only conclude that the legislature's actions were irrational"); Kimel v. Fla. Board of Regents , 528 U.S. 62, 83, 120 S.Ct. 631, 145 L.Ed.2d 522 (2000) (finding age classifications "rationally related to a legitimate state interest" do not offend the Fourteenth Amendment).

Because the law is concededly settled as to the applicable standard of review, we are called upon to decide whether an exception to the foundational doctrine of stare decisis , Hilton v. South Carolina Pub. Rys. Comm'n , 502 U.S. 197, 202, 112 S.Ct. 560, 116 L.Ed.2d 560 (1991) (citation omitted), is justified. While stare decisis is not an "inexorable command," Burnet v. Coronado Oil & Gas Co. , 285 U.S. 393, 405-06, 52 S.Ct. 443, 76 L.Ed. 815 (1932) (Brandeis, J., dissenting), and courts on occasion "bow[ ] to the lessons of experience and the force of better reasoning," id. at 407-08, 52 S.Ct. 443, a departure from controlling precedent "demands special justification," Arizona v. Rumsey , 467 U.S. 203, 212, 104 S.Ct. 2305, 81 L.Ed.2d 164 (1984) (citation omitted). The bar is high indeed: the "governing decision[ ]" must be shown to be "unworkable or ... badly reasoned." See Payne v. Tennessee , 501 U.S. 808, 827, 111 S.Ct. 2597, 115 L.Ed.2d 720 (1991).

In arguing for breaking with precedent as to the applicable standard of review, Theile posits the "similar[ity]" of "stereotyping and discrimination" directed at women and older persons. (Appellant's Br. at 16). However, Theile points to no supporting authority in case law, even the persuasive authority of a dissent. Rather, he simply states that "[t]he present case is more like those in which the middle level of scrutiny developed over time." (Id. at 12). That bare assertion simply assumes, rather than demonstrates, the thing to be proven—that age classifications warrant heightened scrutiny. Similarly conclusory is Theile's assertion that "females and older people have been and are often treated similarly—as weak, less intelligent, and less capable. Therefore, this court should analyze laws discriminating against them similarly." (Id. at 21).

Ultimately, Theile fails to marshal "the most convincing of reasons" showing that adhering to precedent here "puts us on a course that is sure error." See Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm'n , 558 U.S. 310, 362, 130 S.Ct. 876, 175 L.Ed.2d 753 (2010). This Court will therefore not disturb the settled precedent of the Supreme Court and of the Sixth Circuit mandating rational-basis review for age-based classifications. See Kimel , 528 U.S. at 83, 120 S.Ct. 631 ; Murgia , 427 U.S. at 313-14, 96 S.Ct. 2562 ; Breck , 203 F.3d at 395.

IV

We now turn to the substantive question of whether Michigan's judicial age limitation passes muster under the applicable standard—rational-basis review. Theile argues forcefully that the rule is "capricious, unjustified and irrational." (Appellant's Br. at 23-24). He points out that after mandatory retirement, judges often...

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