Commentary
11:55 am
Tue January 11, 2011

Rule of Law

It’s sometimes easy to be cynical about what we used to call “the system” back in the days when bell-bottom jeans were common.

Too often, it appears that society at all levels still functions under the golden rule, as in, he who has the gold, makes the rules.

Ideally, things are supposed to work according to the words engraved on the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington: Equal Justice Under Law.” But in practice, it too often seems that things  are more like the famous New Yorker cartoon in which a judge peers down at a defendant, and asks:

“So, how much justice can you afford?“

However, three things happened yesterday that may restore a little faith in the rule of law. One was national; former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a man who once took the word “arrogant,” to new heights, was sentenced to three years in prison. 

But the other two took place in Michigan. As mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick too often acted as if the laws didn’t apply to him. He kept on behaving that way, even after he was convicted of two felonies.

He’s in prison now, but yesterday, he, his father and three cohorts were back in town again, in federal court this time, pleading not guilty to charges from bribery to extortion to tax evasion.

What was interesting this time, however, was that the media and public scarcely paid attention. Once, we clamored for every detail about the self-styled hip-hop mayor’s outrageous lifestyle.

Yesterday, however, there was far less interest than before. Ten years after he burst on the scene as one of the nation’s youngest mayors, the convict Kilpatrick’s appearances in court have become so commonplace they’ve lost all power to shock.

Three years ago a top political consultant told me that no matter what, Kwame would always manage to get away with it.

Nobody’s saying that any more. The third thing affirming the rule of law also happened in a Detroit courtroom yesterday.

This time, it was in state court. The Detroit International Bridge Company has long behaved as though it were a law unto itself as well. The company, owned by billionaire trucking magnate Matty Moroun,  has declared that it intends to build a second bridge next to the Ambassador Bridge, which it owns.

The government of Canada has said, no way. Various governments in the United States have refused permission as well, but the bridge company paid no attention. 

It seized portions of a city park, and constructed illegal toll booths, fuel pumps and other structures. For a year, courts have been ordering the company to remove these, and to live up to its contract with the Michigan Department of Transportation.

They steadily refused to do so. But yesterday, Dan Stamper, president of the bridge company, got a nasty shock. Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards threw him in jail and fined him for contempt for refusing to obey a court order.

Later in the day, Stamper was released, and again ordered to comply. What happens next is unclear. But he was put on notice.

For democracy to really work, nobody can be above the law.

Yesterday, three men who sometimes acted as though the laws didn’t apply to them, got that message, the hard way.