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Detroit: "Now Is Not the Time for Defiant Swagger..."

posted by Melissa Jacoby

3dPuzzlePlan confirmation time. Doesn't everyone relish a big trial? Headlines in national newspapers breathlessly proclaim that the fate of Detroit's future is in the hands of one single judge!

Well, no.

Let's get literal about the judicial role at this juncture. There's no way over the finish line without a determination by the bankruptcy court that the City has met its burden of showing its plan satisfies all legal requirements by a preponderance of the evidence.

This standard includes the City showing that the plan is not likely to fail. Back in January 2014, as the parties negotiated the plan's initial version, Judge Rhodes called for restraint in creditor demands, modesty in City promises:

Now is not the time for defiant swagger or for dismissive pound-the-table, take-it-or-leave-it proposals that are nothing but a one-way ticket to Chapter 18 ... . If the plan ... promises  more to creditors than the city can reasonably be expected to pay, it will fail, and history will judge each and everyone of us accordingly.

    --Jan 22, 2014, afternoon session

Detroit's plan includes revitalization investments, and does so not merely to show how it will service its debt. That scope takes the court into a farther-reaching review.  And the judge appointed his own feasibility expert, and is planning to conduct the direct examination of the expert himself. Such factors further fuel the image of a judge as gatekeeper of Detroit's future.

Yet, no bankruptcy judge should be saddled with the full weight of longstanding socio-economic and geographic challenges. Historian Thomas Sugrue teaches us that the roots of Detroit's crisis run quite deep. Deeper than the recent past of corruption in the Kilpatrick administration, or dependence on casino revenues, interest rate swaps on certificates of participation, or questions about thirteenth checks. Even before the height of worries about auto industry competition abroad, or the enactment of Michigan constitution language on pensions. By Sugrue's account, Detroit's economic decline started in the 1940s and 1950s with hemorrhaging (his word) of good jobs and capital. For the spiral downward from there, the book is here, the speech, 19 minutes into the video, there.  Repair depends on collaborative work: many tools, many hands. How to engage all communities in the effort to conquer longstanding racial tensions and segregation, achieve regional cooperation, expand jobs that offer more security and opportunity than downtown coffee shops and sports stadiums? ("Downtown does not trickle down," said Sugrue at a Wayne State conference earlier this year; explanation here). Again, many tools, many hands.

Although these challenges illustrate how the judge's plan confirmation role operates within a much broader framework of actors, judges also can shape a municipality's restructuring and future throughout the bankruptcy process, in more informal ways. In Detroit's case, Judge Rhodes planted the seeds of oversight and influence in the earliest days of the bankruptcy. He drew on tools and techniques used decades earlier in other kinds of complex litigation, including prison reform and school desegregation cases. See here, here, here, and here.

Among the most consequential moves was delegating to Chief District Judge Rosen the authority to mediate nearly every substantive issue in the case. Detroit heads into the confirmation hearing with many settlements in its pocket - with financial creditors as well as workers and retirees. Most discussed is the pension/art settlement (a.k.a. Grand Bargain) that looks the least like a conventional mediated settlement. Chief Judge Rosen has suggested the deal could be a model for other distressed cities. On harnessing the power of the non-profit sector, maybe so. On a sitting life-tenured judge being the designer, broker, and closer of this type of deal, not so much. However socially desirable the content of the Grand Bargain may be (and that debate will rage on), the costs and risks of this procedural model are simply too great. 

So, as the last phase of the historic Detroit bankruptcy commences, the question of judicial responsibility and influence must be put in context. The role of federal judges in shaping Detroit's future has been overstated in some ways, understated in others. Trials matter. But if they capture too much of our attention, we will miss other important things.

Puzzle picture courtesy of Shutterstock

 

Comments

forgot too generous promises to employees and retirees as a cause of the problems -- though it appears they will do better relatively in the end than the bond insurers. Like many big cities, Detroit was run by one dominant ideology for decades. Inconvenient fact but true.

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