A judge dis­missed Hillsdale Justice Project, Inc.’s case on Jan. 10 against Hillsdale County and City of Hillsdale after the city had denied the organization’s tax exemption.

Hillsdale Justice Project filed a motion asking the Hillsdale County First Judicial Circuit Court to issue a judgment rec­og­nizing its status as a non­profit in good standing, which would exclude it from tax­ation. The defen­dants were Hillsdale County Trea­surer Stephenie Kyser and Hillsdale City Assessor Kim Thomas. 

“Our mission statement is ‘Cit­izens helping cit­izens help them­selves,’” said Jon-Paul Rutan, the founder and pres­ident of Hillsdale Justice Project. “You can assert your rights in a civil manner and still retain those rights, and that’s what we teach.” 

Besides teaching classes on important doc­u­ments from American history, Rutan said the group helps people who are “caught in the criminal justice system.” 

“They’ll come in, we’ll help them research the law, we’ll help them under­stand the sit­u­ation,” Rutan said. “We don’t go our­selves as lawyers, nor do we give legal advice. All we do is we help people help themselves.” 

In March of 2020, the orga­ni­zation brought its case before the City of Hillsdale Board of Review, which denied the organization’s exemption, according to the city board’s minutes from the meeting.

In August 2021, Hillsdale Justice Project filed its motion for a declaratory judgment with the Hillsdale Circuit Court. 

The defen­dants asked the court to dismiss the case. They argued that the circuit court did not have the authority to decide the case because a final decision by a Board of Review could only be appealed to the Michigan Tax Tribunal.

The Hillsdale Justice Project responded in a brief arguing the case remained within the circuit court’s juris­diction because the Board of Review hearing did not comply with Michigan law. Hillsdale Justice Project alleged the Board of Review denied its exemption 1 – 1, without a majority vote. 

Circuit Court Admin­is­trator Cindy Webb said that both Circuit Court Judge Sara Lisznyai recused herself from the case because both Lisznyai and one of the defen­dants, County Trea­surer Stephenie Kyser, are county employees. According to Webb, it would have been wrong for Lisznyai to preside over the case. 

Two other county judges, Michelle Bianchi and Megan Stiverson, also recused them­selves. The case was then assigned to Lenawee County Circuit Judge Anna Marie Anzalone.

Anzalone heard the case remotely on Jan. 10. 

“At the con­clusion of Monday’s hearing, Anzalone granted the city and county’s motion, and dis­missed the lawsuit,” Thomas L. Thompson, the attorney rep­re­senting the city and the county, said in an email on Jan. 13. 

The Hillsdale Justice Project filed with the state tax tri­bunal fol­lowing the judge’s decision to dismiss the case, Rutan said.

The Hillsdale Justice Project’s property is cur­rently in for­feiture and will be fore­closed if 2019 taxes are not paid in full by March 31, according to a letter Rutan received shortly after the hearing. A show-cause hearing is scheduled for Feb. 15. During the hearing, the Hillsdale Justice Project plans to contest the for­feiture on the grounds that the orga­ni­zation is tax-exempt, Rutan said.