The Nobel-prize-winning writer Anatole France once observed sarcastically that “the law, in its infinite wisdom, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, or steal bread.”
That popped into my mind yesterday, when a billionaire who owns a bridge learned to his shock that laws apply to him too, and that there are some people who cannot be bullied or bought.
Manuel J. “Matty” Moroun woke up in a Wayne County jail cell this morning, wearing a green jump suit. That is the best thing that has happened to restore faith in democracy in a long, long time. For many years, Moroun has treated the law with cynical contempt. He has seized and fenced off city parkland and hired gun-toting goons to drive people off their own property.
He has spent millions to wage a public disinformation campaign about a badly needed new bridge across the Detroit River, and has spent vast sums in a successful attempt to buy off the Michigan legislature with campaign contributions, and prevent them from allowing a project that would immensely benefit our economy.
And for years, he has openly defied court orders to live up to a contract he signed with the state of Michigan years ago.
In simple terms, this is what happened yesterday. Eight years ago, the Detroit International Bridge Company signed an agreement with the Michigan Department of Transportation for something called the Gateway project, to ease congestion at the Ambassador Bridge.
That bridge, which is the only way heavy freight can cross the river in southeast Michigan, is entirely owned by Moroun’s privately held company. Traffic is a problem. But Moroun did not build his part of the project in the way he agreed to. Instead, he closed off a street and improperly built duty-free shops and fuel pumps and routed traffic by them, presumably to make more money for himself.
The Michigan Department of Transportation sued. Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards ruled in MDOT’s favor, and repeatedly ordered Moroun’s compamy to demolish the illegal construction and built the project as agreed. They continually refused, even after Moroun’s main assistant, Dan Stamper, was briefly jailed a year ago. Yesterday, the judge forced Moroun himself to appear in court, and then ordered Moroun and Stamper to jail for contempt of court.
Moroun first engaged in some shenanigans that were an insult to everyone’s intelligence, claiming he didn’t really own the company and then that he had resigned, but no one was fooled.
The judge, who by all accounts is a patient and fair man, did the only thing left to him to enforce the law. Moroun’s son attempted to smear Judge Edwards, saying he had a “vendetta” against his father. That was shown to be a lie when two appeals court judges swiftly upheld the decision to keep Moroun in jail.
These words are carved about the Supreme Court building in Washington: Equal Justice Under Law. We’ve never quite achieved that, but if democracy means anything, it means being governed by laws, not the whims of men. As imperfect as we are, we found out yesterday that we are still a nation where a billionaire can be thrown into prison for showing contempt for our courts.That’s something that ought to make Americans proud.