Bridge pushes judge’s patience

Has Moroun finally met his match?

By Anne Jarvis, The Windsor Star

Matty Moroun, the seemingly unstoppable billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge, may finally have met his match in a mild-mannered lower court judge who quietly refuses to be buffaloed.

Last year, Judge Prentis Edwards of the Third Circuit Court, the basic trial court for Wayne County, ordered the Detroit International Bridge Company to finish – properly – its share of the Gateway Project, a $230-million joint venture with the Michigan Department of Transportation to improve the roads and ramps connecting the bridge to I-75 and I-96.

Instead of doing the work, which would interfere with Moroun’s lucrative duty-free store and gas pumps, the bridge went to the Michigan Court of Appeals. It lost.

It went to the Michigan Supreme Court. It lost again.

The bridge went to the federal court, twice. That court, too, sent the defendant packing.

Last January, with little done, Edwards ruled the bridge was in contempt of court, jailed president Dan Stamper and gave Moroun one year to finish the work.

Last week, with two months left and still little done, Edwards ruled the bridge is in contempt of court again, set a hearing into appointing a receiver to do the work and summoned Moroun himself to appear in court Jan. 12 to face possible financial penalties and imprisonment.

The 13-page ruling is unequivocal. The bridge has not built what it was supposed to build. It has built things it wasn’t supposed to build. It tried to get out of building an access road; then it tried to change the path of the road. It did virtually no work for a year and a half. It evaded work even after it was ordered to finish it. It resumed only briefly after being ruled in contempt of court the first time. It says it doesn’t understand what it’s supposed to do; at the same time, it says it has complied. Its arguments are “spurious.” Just getting a schedule to finish the work is “illusory.” And this project was supposed to be finished more than three years ago.

Edwards quoted another judge who wrote that the bridge “may be entitled to its recognition as the party who has devised the most creative schemes and manoeuvres to delay compliance with a court order.”

The evidence is “clear and unequivocal,” Edwards concluded. The bridge doesn’t intend to comply with the court. Its conduct impairs the court and its authority.

“It’s significant, very significant,” a source close to the case said of the latest ruling. “It’s going to mean something is done. They’re out of time to meet the January 2012 deadline. They’d have to hire an army to get it done now. (Edwards has) let them hang themselves.”

“I think it’s very significant because at last Moroun is going to have to go to court,” said Detroit blogger and former journalist Joel Thurtell, who has followed the bridge for years. “The billionaire himself is being made to take responsibility.” It’s “pretty tough” when a judge threatens a person with jail, especially in a civil case, where courts are more reluctant to incarcerate, said Wayne State University law professor John Mogk.

Moroun has been virtually lawless, until now. Observers who have followed the case say they think the jig is finally up. Though some are skeptical that Moroun will show up Jan. 12, others say he can’t get around a judicial order. If he doesn’t show up, the sheriff can be sent to get him. Some are expecting high drama.

The people of Southwest Detroit, where Moroun has directed truck traffic onto city streets instead of building proper access roads, are talking about nominating Edwards for Michiganian of the Year.

“He has actually paid attention to the truth,” said Rashida Tlaib, state representative for the area. “He brings so much integrity to the judicial system, which our families depend on for justice. A mega billionaire corporation that has been able to influence the legislature hasn’t been able to influence this judge. He’s making it very clear, no matter how much money you have, you’re not above the law.”

Edwards did not speak to The Star. He doesn’t grant interviews to the media, his research attorney, Adrienne Scruggs, said.

Admitted to the bar in 1966 and now serving his third term as an elected circuit court judge, Edwards has had a long and varied career as both a prosecutor and a defence attorney, advising courts on divorce and custody and presiding over juvenile court. An older, bespectacled African-American man, he lives in Detroit, where he and his wife, a former teacher, have been active for decades in Fellowship Chapel Church. He’s known as knowledgeable, thorough, patient, straightforward, even-keeled and no-nonsense.

“He is always prepared. He is hard-working. He has a reputation for being fair. He’s got a good judicial temperament; he’s respectful of lawyers and litigants who come before him. He is very well respected in our legal community. I like him,” said Dennis Archer, the former mayor of Detroit and lawyer for four decades.

When lawyers for the defendant in another civil case said their client was sick seemingly so he could get out of coming to court, Edwards called them on it, said lawyer Jim Rasor of Royal Oak, who has appeared before Edwards numerous times.

“The judge wouldn’t see any of it,” he said. “He told them they needed to provide a note indicating the guy was really sick. When they didn’t, he said we’re moving forward.”

That’s how Edwards has handled the bridge case, observers say: focused, measured, providing ample opportunity for both sides to present information.

“He gives the impression he’s not taking any shenanigans,” said Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry operator Gregg Ward. “He’ll say, ‘We’ve heard this statement before. Please continue with your point.'”

Critics say he has been too cautious, letting the case, first filed by the state in 2009, drag on. But they admit that could be because of the threat of appeal.

“I think Edwards is being extremely cautious … making sure the case is going to stay as he ordered it so there’s no way he’s going to be reversed on appeal,” said the source close to the case. “He has not ever lost his cool, never given any reason to believe he’s biased. There have been many times we wish he’d throw the book at them, but he doesn’t so he doesn’t give them any ammunition for the court of appeals.”

Observers contrast how Edwards has handled his case with how another Third Circuit Court judge, Kathleen Macdonald, has handled the case of Riverside Park, a city park that the bridge took over. Macdonald ordered the city to negotiate with the bridge, issued a broad injunction ordering the city not to interfere with the bridge and extended the injunction to the state, sources said. The appeals court later ruled she didn’t have that authority. She has allowed the bridge to make grand statements about national security, done many things in chambers away from the public, delayed rulings and has yet to issue a decision.

“She has bent over backwards for the bridge company all along,” said the source close to the Gateway case.

Michigan columnist Jack Lessenberry called it a “disgrace” that the court hasn’t reclaimed the park for the city and penalized the bridge.

People in Southwest Detroit became so frustrated that they tore down the fence that the bridge erected around the park.

The day Edwards issued his latest ruling, Matthew Moroun, the billionaire’s son, suggested that Edwards is biased because his son, Prentis Edwards Jr., is seeking an appointment as a judge on the 36th District Court in Detroit. Edwards Jr. is an assistant prosecuting attorney in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office.

There are three vacancies on the district court, a minor court that deals with misdemeanours and traffic violations. Snyder, who supports the proposed new government bridge downriver that would compete with Moroun’s bridge, will appoint replacements until the next election. Edwards is rumoured to have applied, but the governor’s office has not confirmed that. Matthew Moroun did not return a call.

The allegation shocked some and has been roundly dismissed as an attempt to smear Edwards.

“That is so far-fetched! This is just unbelievable! I know the facts of this case. It’s not (bias). It’s the fact you violated the law, violated a court order. It’s that simple,” stormed Tlaib.

“It is absolutely contemptible to make a charge about a sitting judge like that!” an irate former high-ranking Republican and state employee told Lessenberry .

“Based on the judge I know, the Prentis Edwards I know, he is a very ethical person, steeped in integrity and character,” said Archer. “Nothing is going to persuade him from doing what he believes is the law applied to the facts.”

Said Marylin Atkins, chief judge of the 36th District Court, “If his son becomes a judge, I hope he’s as good as his dad.”

Archer pointed to the rulings by the appeals court and the supreme court dismissing the bridge.

“That will tell you whether the judge has been fair and has been right,” he said.

Edwards first ruled against the bridge before Snyder even became governor, others pointed out.

“I think they have a fear the rules and regulations are going to catch up with them,” said Ward. “They’re fearful of the consequences. Anyone they can drag down to take attention from themselves….”

Others see a more sinister tactic.

“What they’re trying to do is get him disqualified and get someone who is a better choice for them,” said Rasor.

The case continues Dec. 1 with a hearing into appointing a receiver to finish the work that was supposed to be done by the bridge.