St. Clair Circuit judge blasts Wayne County in ruling County ordered to increase staffing, provide adequate facilities and newer technology for 3rd Circuit Court

By John Minnis

Legal News

A St. Clair County Circuit Court judge has ruled that Wayne County must provide adequate funding, personnel, facilities and technology for Wayne County Third Circuit Court to fulfill its judicial mandate.

In his Oct. 28 decision, Judge Peter J. Deegan in St. Clair County also heavily criticized the county's $36 million purchase and renovation of the Guardian Building in downtown Detroit in order to provide "palatial offices to its executive staff while turning a cold shoulder to financial obligations to the Third Circuit Court and the good citizens of Wayne County."

Wayne County Chief Judge Virgil Smith sought a temporary restraining order after County Executive Robert Ficano ordered the clerk and sheriff to cut their staffs. The cuts would have resulted in the chief judge not being able to open the majority of the courtrooms due to lack of staff.

Attorney Samuel A. Nouhan, for Wayne County, argued that the Third Circuit Court failed to prove that it was at an impasse with the county in order to trigger the court's "inherent power" to compel funding as provided in 46th Circuit Trial Court v. Crawford County.

In the first of one of his many rulings against Wayne County and in favor of the Third Circuit Court, Deegan found "clear and convincing evidence (that) satisfies the Crawford requirement of in 'impasse.'"

After hearing from the chief and circuit judges, court administrators and personnel and outside experts, Deegan not only found Wayne County was underfunding its courts, he also found the county was engaging in accounting legerdemain and withholding funds legally due the court.

In his ruling, Deegan ordered the county to provide funding for an additional 110 court personnel, including 46 sheriff deputies.

He also ordered the county to provide funding for the county clerk to hire up to 14 contract employees to work 40 hours a week for 90 days, "or however long it takes," to catch up on its court filings.

The judge also ordered Wayne County to turn over $1 million it held in escrow for the court to complete implementation of its Odyssey case management system. He also ordered the county to fund the court's own IT department and imaging and e-filing systems.

Concerning conditions at the Friend of the Court in the Penobscot Building, the Frank Hall Murphy Hall of Justice and the family and juvenile courts at the Lincoln Hall of Justice, Deegan ruled that the county has failed to provide "minimum standards to afford the public its right of access to justice that the Constitution mandates and guarantees them."

Deegan characterized the facilities as "in such pathetic condition that they have not been fit for man nor beast."

Consequently, he ordered that the Third Circuit Court hire a judicial facility planner to "either rebuild, clean-up and secure those facilities... In the alternative, the county may secure or build new court facilities which the Third Circuit would have to approve." Deegan also ruled that all Wayne County court facilities be brought into compliance the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Also, due to the poor physical condition and maintenance of the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, the Lincoln Hall of Justice and the Penobscot Building, the court ordered that eight janitors be hired for every 150,000 square feet and one maintenance person per 50,000 square feet, a benchmark testified to by facilities expert Chang-Ming Yeh of the National Center for State Courts.

Deegan ordered a three-year injunction requiring Wayne County and the Third Circuit Court to work together to comply with his order. Deegan's court would also appoint a master -- at Wayne County expense -- "to aid in accomplishing the relief outlined in this order so the citizens of Wayne County may truly have access to justice."

Wayne County's reaction was swift and bitter.

In a news release titled "Judge's Outrageous Order Cripples Wayne County Government," Wayne County Executive Robert A. Ficano called the ruling "outrageous," accusing Deegan "and his fellow judges" of wanting "to continue to spend without limits while everyone else pays for it."

Ficano interpreted Deegan's ruling as an attempt to give Wayne County judges more than $500 million to shore up "their massive deficit and move to a new site that is 'equal to (the judges') noble purpose.' This amount is equal to the county's entire general fund. Should the ruling stand, county operations will be completely crippled, and the county would become insolvent."

Godfrey J. Dillard, lead trial counsel for Wayne County Circuit Court, pointed out that nowhere in the judge's ruling is "$500 million" mentioned.

The plaintiff's attorney also took exception with Ficano's attack on Deegan, "a highly respected jurist."

In his response, the Wayne County executive felt it necessary to mention that Deegan was due to retire and potentially become a visiting judge in Wayne County. Ficano also noted that the St. Clair County Circuit Court judge "delivered his 27-page written opinion less than 24 hours after the county made its closing argument."

Ficano accused the Wayne County court of refusing to cut its costs like all other Wayne County departments.

"We've all taken 10 percent cuts, reduced our budgets and looked for solutions," he said. "We've asked the courts to do the same, but they've continually refused, ignoring reality. Courts are supposed to dispense justice to those who don't have a voice ... not rule over them like kings and queens. This culture of arrogance and entitlement has to end in the judicial branch."

Dillard countered that it is Ficano who is being arrogant by treating courts as "just another Wayne County department instead of a separate branch of government. He's an attorney!"

Further, Dillard said, the court and Chief Judge Smith on their own have provided some $17 million in savings and new revenue.

Ficano also alleges that while the Third Circuit's caseload is down 30 percent, it continues to run with 62 sitting judges, more per capita than Oakland and Macomb Counties.

Dillard responds that while case filings are down, the myriad other post and ancillary court work is up, not just in Wayne County but everywhere. He said the county's caseload comparisons are just another form of the county's "voodoo" math.

For example, he said, the county accused the Third Circuit Court of running a $64 million deficit, when, in fact, the court was improperly applied "charge-backs" for child custody payments, sheriff deputies and indigent defense counsel.

In the case of the child custody payments, they belong in their own fund, have nothing to do with operating funds and, besides, the county is reimbursed through the Cooperative Reimbursement Program, Dillard said.

As far as sheriff deputies, court clerks and court-appointed attorneys, the county is required to fund those positions. To later "charge-back" the court for the county's own "overruns" for those positions is wrong, Dillard said and the St. Clair County judge agreed.

"It's a shell game," Dillard said. "It's voodoo accounting and Judge Deegan saw through it."

The judge was also appalled with the conditions of Wayne County court facilities. Court employees and hired experts reported roaches, garbage in hallways, broken toilets and air conditioners, inoperative scanners, open case and adoption files and inadequate security. One expert was able to get in to the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, the Lincoln Hall of Justice, the Coleman A. Young Building and the Penobscot Building with an undetected "8-inch buck-knife."

"I have to admit I was shocked when I got into this case and saw the conditions of the Third Circuit Court." said Dillard, who was born and raised in Detroit.

He said it is most likely that Wayne County will appeal Judge Deegan's decision.

"Of course they are going to appeal it," Dillard said. "I think it will be very difficult to show abuse of judicial authority."

Wayne County Executive Ficano's office did not respond by press time to whether an appeal will be filed.

Overall, Dillard does not see where Wayne County has a legal argument.

"It was such a bad case," he said. "I don't know how they thought they would win this case."

Still, Dillard hopes that the lawsuit will "knock some sense" into Ficano and that it will allow the two parties to sit down "as co-equal branches of government."

In his opinion, Judge Deegan wrote, "But for my status quo order of Sept. 1, 2009, requiring Defendant to maintain the staffing levels of Sept. 30, 2008, I have not doubt the legal justice system in Wayne County would have ground to a halt."

Published: Tue, Nov 2, 2010