FLINT, Mich. (AP) - A judge dismissed criminal charges against former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in the Flint water crisis, months after the state Supreme Court said indictments returned by a one-person grand jury were invalid.
Snyder, a Republican who left office in 2019, was charged with two misdemeanor counts of willful neglect of duty. He was the first person in state history to be charged for alleged crimes related to service as governor.
Genesee County Judge F. Kay Behm signed the order Wednesday, a day after the U.S. Senate approved her nomination to become a federal judge in eastern Michigan.
"The charges against (Snyder) were not properly brought and must be dismissed at this time," Behm wrote, sending the case to a lower court for the final step, weeks after hearing arguments.
In response, prosecutors in the Democratic-led attorney general's office said it will add the result to other appeals.
"Rulings up to this point have been on process alone, not on the merits of the case," prosecutors said.
"We are confident that the evidence clearly supports the criminal charges against Rick Snyder," they added, "and we will not stop until we have exhausted all possible legal options to secure justice for the people of Flint."
Prosecutors could try to rerun the case with new charges, but any effort might encounter a six-year statute of limitations.
"That would be one of our many arguments," Snyder attorney Brian Lennon told The Associated Press. "This is a victory and hopefully the end to this politically motivated prosecution."
Only one case remains pending in the water scandal, which not only exposed children to toxic lead but was blamed for deaths linked to an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease. Activists who believe crimes were committed are frustrated that no one has been locked up.
The attorney general's office has desperately tried to keep the cases alive but so far has lost at every turn. Prosecutors have argued that the indictments could simply be turned into common criminal complaints in district court, but Behm and another judge have rejected that approach.
Flint's water became tainted with lead after city managers appointed by Snyder began using the Flint River in 2014 to save money while a new pipeline to Lake Huron was built. The water wasn't treated to reduce its corrosive qualities, causing lead to break off from old pipes and contaminate the system for more than a year.
The Michigan Civil Rights Commission said it was the result of systemic racism, doubting that the water switch and the brush-off of complaints in the majority-Black city would have occurred in a white, prosperous community.
Flint residents complained about the water's smell, taste and appearance, raising health concerns and reporting rashes, hair loss and other problems. Snyder didn't acknowledge that lead was a problem until 17 months after the water switch, in fall 2015, when he pledged to take action.
He agreed that state government had botched the water switch, especially regulators who didn't require certain treatments. But his defense team denies that Snyder's conduct rose to the level of any crime.
Michigan prosecutors typically file charges in a district court after a police investigation. A one-judge grand jury was rare and had mostly been used in Detroit and Flint to protect witnesses who could testify in private about violent crimes.
State prosecutors, working with Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy, chose that path in the Flint water saga to hear evidence in secret and get indictments against Snyder and others.
But the state Supreme Court unanimously said a one-judge grand jury can't issue indictments. The process apparently had never been challenged.
Judge Elizabeth Kelly in October dismissed felony charges against seven people, including two senior health officials from Snyder's administration, Nick Lyon and Eden Wells, who had been charged with involuntary manslaughter in nine Legionnaires' deaths.
The attorney general's office is trying to persuade the appeals court to intervene and somehow reverse the decision, despite the findings of the Supreme Court.
A former Flint public works official, Howard Croft, still has misdemeanors pending with a different judge.
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This version corrects that the misdemeanors were for willful neglect of duty, not misconduct.