By Todd Spangler
Detroit Free Press Washington Staff
WASHINGTON — The federal government moved today to dismiss Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun’s arguments that he has an exclusive franchise to operate a span over the Detroit River, calling it an attempt to claim an “unfettered perpetual monopoly” over a sovereign border controlled by the U.S. and Canada.
In a strongly worded response to Moroun’s complaint against several federal officials, as well as a partnership between the nations and agencies in Michigan and Ontario to construct a new publicly owned span, federal lawyers slammed the bridge owner’s claims as “nothing more than an attempt to rewrite the entire history of the Ambassador Bridge.”
The filing said Moroun wants the court “not only to rewrite the Congressional statutes that authorized the construction and operation of the bridge, but to interfere with the United States’ and Canada’s sovereign powers to establish and maintain border crossings between their two nations.” The filing asks that all the claims be dismissed.
In separate filings, both the State of Michigan and the Canadian government also said any claims against them should be dismissed because they enjoy sovereign immunity and cannot be sued in federal court.
In May, Moroun’s lawyer in Washington asked U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer to issue an injunction reversing a U.S. State Department-issued presidential permit for the rival span — the New International Trade Crossing or NITC — which Canada and Gov. Rick Snyder want built two miles downstream from the Ambassador Bridge.
Moroun’s lawyer argued that legislation approved by both Congress and the Canadian Parliament in the 1920s authorizing construction of the Ambassador Bridge gave its owners, then and now, “statutory and contractual franchise rights” to operate the crossing between Detroit and Windsor.
A new bridge — especially one expected to draw traffic away from its span, the busiest border trade crossing in North America — would violate that franchise, the bridge company argued.
But the Justice Department, representing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who were among the defendants named in the complaint, said there was “no mention of exclusivity” in the authorizing acts that the bridge company is attempting to claim now.
“In short, Plaintiffs (or their predecessors) had the right in 1921 to build, operate and maintain a bridge in the vicinity of Detroit, and they continue to have that right today,” the response said. “It is not an unfettered, exclusive right in perpetuity.”
Federal lawyers also brushed off a claim that the procedure by which the State Department issued the presidential permit for the NITC in April was unconstitutional, noting that Congress gave it that authorization in 1972 with the guideline that it take “foreign policy and foreign relations” in consideration when making border decisions.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette also filed a response saying the Ambassador Bridge owner has no exclusive right to a bridge over the river at Detroit, adding that the relevant authorization “does not mention a ‘franchise,’ let alone an ‘exclusive’ or ‘perpetual’ one.”
Moroun’s lawyers have been arguing for years that U.S. and Canadian government agencies have been dragging their feet on approvals for a second span Moroun wants to build himself next to the Ambassador Bridge, while aiding the effort to build the NITC. Canada has even promised to pick up Michigan’s $550-million share of the bridge.
Schuette’s office said in its filing that any claims against the so-called partnership created between Canada, Ontario, the federal government and the Michigan Department of Transportation should be dismissed because MDOT, as an arm of the state, enjoys sovereign immunity under the 11th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government said in its filing that any claim against it should be brought in Canadian courts, not in the U.S. It also maintained that far from giving the Ambassador Bridge’s owners an exclusive franchise, “A nation’s decision to open its borders to an international bridge is an inherently sovereign power” that can be exercised as the nation sees fit.
“This case is just one piece of a much larger effort by Plaintiffs to … preserve their monopoly profits,” the Canadian filing said.
The Canadian filing also said at least 18 court actions have been initiated by the bridge owners against the new span. Last November, voters in Michigan rejected a referendum pushed by the bridge owners to amend the state constitution to require statewide and local votes before state government could spend any money on any new international bridge.