When I heard the first news flashes about the Michigan Court of appeals ruling yesterday, it appeared briefly that the Ambassador Bridge company had won. Indeed, the court said Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards was wrong to rule that Matty Moroun, the bridge’s owner, and Dan Stamper, his top employee, had to stay in jail until they lived up to an agreement with the state.
But when I actually read the judges’ opinions, I found that in fact, Moroun and Stamper had lost, big-time. The court said the judge did not violate their rights when he sent them to prison for contempt of court last month. Indeed, the only thing wrong, in their view, was that he didn’t make it sufficiently clear what they had to do to get out.
Which means that it is entirely possible that Moroun and Stamper could wind up back in jail.
That may not happen, at least not right away. But something dramatic HAS happened. Two years ago, the court found that Moroun, the owner of the Ambassador Bridge, failed to live up to terms his company agreed to in 2004 when it signed an agreement with the Michigan Department of Transportation, or MDOT.
This was for something called the Gateway Project, which was designed to improve access and reduce backups at the Ambassador Bridge, the only way most heavy freight can cross the Detroit River.
By the way, it is important to note that this has nothing to do with the continuing controversy over whether the state should build a new bridge, something Moroun bitterly opposes.
This has to do with improving access to the old bridge. Eight years ago, the two parties agreed on this project. But then, according to the state, the bridge company didn’t live up to the bargain.
It built an unauthorized ramp in a place where it was supposed to build a road to move truck traffic directly to the freeways, and also improperly erected a duty-free store and some gas stations.
More than two years ago, Judge Edwards told the company to live up to the contract it signed, tear down the improper construction and complete the work.
He repeated that order a year ago. This January, most of it still remained undone, and the judge tossed Moroun and Stamper in jail and said they would stay there till he was satisfied it had been done.
The court of appeals released them after a little more than a day, while it studied their appeal. Yesterday, it essentially found the only thing the judge did wrong was fail to specify precisely what Moroun and Stamper needed to do to get out of jail.
And the judges agreed their claim that Edwards was biased and disqualified had no merit. This comes as newly-released reports by a court-appointed monitor, engineer Charles Scales, pretty much totally back MDOTs claims in this dispute.
What happens next will be interesting. But there’s something else interesting too. The courts have now made it clear that the Ambassador Bridge company has failed to live up to a contract it signed with the state, or obey a judge‘s orders.
Given that, it will be interesting to see how people can still claim it ought to be allowed to continue to have a monopoly over the nation’s largest and most important international trade crossing.