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.