Sunday, November 25, 2012

In Detroit ‘Mistakes Were Made’–And They’re Just Getting Started

Here’s a made-in-Detroit story with almost everything in it that makes my hometown so interesting these days: allegations of civil rights violations by the cops, an astoundingly incompetent city department, and an autocrat too busy pretending to defend the city’s sacred honor to care that she single-handedly cost the city $1.1 million dollars from its bankrupt budget.

According to the Detroit Free Press:

The City of Detroit has been ordered to pay $1.1 million to a man who was rousted out of bed as a 14-year-old, charged with murder and held in a violent juvenile lockup for nearly two years before being acquitted of a fatal shooting in his neighborhood.

Caleb Sosa, now 19, claimed that police violated his civil rights by coercing him to put his initials on a confession that he couldn't even read.

The allegations in his lawsuit were never tested, however, because the case ended in an extraordinary way. A judge declared a default when city lawyers failed the most basic procedural step: They never filed a timely answer in court.

"The judge found that mistakes were made," said Krystal Crittendon, the head of Detroit's law department. (“Detroit ordered to pay man $1.1M in botched murder case”).

Now you Detroit watchers, and especially you court watchers, can especially appreciate that the case ending this way wasn’t extraordinary at all -- not for the Detroit Law Department. Detroit’s lawyers have specialized for years – at least going back to the Young administration -- in failing to answer lawsuits or show up in court to handle the most routine legal chores, racking up default judgments resulting in tens of millions of dollars in damages without plaintiffs ever having to prove a thing in court. And yes, that law-department chief offering the ultra-weak “mistakes were made” excuse in this recent case was none other than Krystal Crittendon, the Detroit Corporation Counsel who’s been holding Detroit hostage since June, and whom the Free Press just finished lionizing a few days before as a “fighter” whose only goal is “doing the right thing.” (“Detroit's controversial counsel Krystal Crittendon speaks out on why she won't stop fighting”).

It may be that the plaintiff in this case had a meritorious case and deserved the award. The Detroit police have been under a federal consent decree for years meant to correct a deeply-embedded departmental disregard for civil rights, and things still aren’t what they should be.

But that’s not really the point. The City of Detroit owes it to taxpayers to at least show up in court and defend these cases to insure that frivolous lawsuits aren’t being filed to fleece the city of money it hasn’t got. I have no doubt that the law department’s longtime reputation for negligence about routine lawyering has meant plenty of plaintiffs with phony claims gambled on winning by default and won.

Crittendon obviously doesn’t care. She’s on a mission she likes better, which is exercising co-equal powers with the mayor and the City Council. Thanks to her, not a single reform that was worked out in a consent agreement between Detroit and the State earlier this year has gone into effect. Detroit voters steeped in racist politics and convinced by their leaders that the only motive outsiders have for wanting to take over Detroit’s many failing departments are malevolent ones, voted this month to change the city charter to give Crittendon the power to interpret for herself the meaning of the city charter, and then to take judicial action on her own initiative to force elected officials to comply whenever she believes there’s been a violation.

Aside from the political insanity of this charter language (imagine a solicitor general with the authority to sue the President and the Congress to force them to abide by his interpretation of the Constitution), Crittendon’s talent for interpreting municipal law is limited. She claimed to believe she represented the citizens directly, rather than as counsel for the elected city government, her bosses. Accordingly, she filed a lawsuit on her own (imaginary) authority to stop the consent agreement from going into effect. The judge threw it out upon the obvious ground that only the mayor or the council can file lawsuits on the city’s behalf. (Notably, when the judge made his ruling, “Crittendon was not in court.”). As for the merits of her argument, she speciously determined that the State of Michigan was one of the city’s “debtors,” and so the city charter prohibited the city from making contracts with anyone in default. It remains to be seen if Crittendon’s logic will be applied the next time an agreement between Michigan and Detroit is made involving the transfer of state funds to the city.

I don’t believe for one second that Crittendon is dumb enough to believe any of this.  My guess is she is yet one more in Detroit’s long, long, line of shrewd opportunists who understands exactly where all Detroit voters’ buttons are, and intends to push them.  My own guess is she wants to be mayor.  How far-fetched is it when we just watched as 63% of Detroit voters willingly amended the city charter to make her co-mayor and a one-woman Supreme Court all rolled into one.  Obviously, she’s already grown beyond the mundane duties of running the law department.


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