For some vulnerable citizens, past mistakes can prevent them from accessing basic necessities, such as housing, cash assistance, and food. The Veterans Legal Clinic recently finalized a case that involved a 62-year-old disabled and previously homeless veteran who was barred from receiving food assistance, resulting in a rule change by the State of Michigan that will expand access to food stamps.
In 2015, Bill Bennett applied for and was granted access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a federal food stamp program, but did not disclose that he had felony drug convictions on his record. State of Michigan rules at the time stipulated that people convicted of two or more felonies involving the possession, use, or distribution of a controlled substance were ineligible for SNAP benefits. This law was guided by federal policy recommendations, although Michigan took it one step further than most states by implementing a lifetime ban.
When his previous felonies were discovered, Bennett was sued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which claimed that he had intentionally violated the rule. Initially taking on the case in November 2017, the Veterans Legal Clinic succeeded in getting the intentional program violation allegations dismissed, but the department still maintained that benefits had been paid out to which he was not entitled. The Clinic, in partnership with the Michigan Poverty Law Program, a nonprofit organization associated with the Law School that has a history working on this issue, filed a lawsuit against the State of Michigan to challenge its determination of overpayment against Bennett. This lawsuit alleged that Bennett was being discriminated against due to his disabilities, and that the law violated his constitutional rights to due process and protection from cruel and unusual punishment and excessive fines.
Rather than fight the lawsuit, the State wrote the policy out of the budget for fiscal year 2020–2021, which effectively eliminated the rule restricting people with felony drug convictions from receiving food assistance. The Michigan Attorney General's Office subsequently entered into a settlement agreement with Bennett, and in January 2021, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed Senate Bill 1006 as part of a package of criminal justice reforms. This bill added into law that people with multiple drug felonies are eligible for SNAP benefits, as long as they don't have any current warrants for their arrest. "Ultimately, I think the lawsuit was the straw that broke the camel's back. It meant that the state was going to have to confront and defend this policy," says Matthew Andres, '02, clinical assistant professor and director of the Veterans Legal Clinic. "However, I think the governor was interested in changing this law, and it sets a template for other states to potentially get rid of these laws and start considering food assistance a basic right."
The bill is a win not only for Bennett, but also for other Michigan residents who face similar challenges, and for the many students and faculty members who represented him for more than three years. "Knowing the broad impact that this case is going to have, it was an incredibly rewarding experience," says Kevin Deutsch, '20, who worked on the case as a student attorney. "The result is a great motivator to continue forward with my legal career through any adversity that might arise."