Should bridge company's Moroun and Stamper remain out of jail? State Court of Appeals will decide.

Feb 3, 2012 at 12:06 pm
We’ve been going over the coverage of yesterday’s hearing before a three-judge Michigan Court of Appeals panel, which is considering whether Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Prentis Edwards acted within the law last month when he jailed Detroit International Bridge Company President Dan Stamper and Manuel “Matty” Moroun, who, along with his wife and son, controls the company that owns the Ambassador Bridge.

Edwards jailed the pair for contempt of court in January. They were released after 36 hours, after the appellate court agreed to hear their case.

The issue involves the Gateway Project, a $230 million joint venture between the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the bridge company. MDOT sued in 2009, claiming the bridge company failed to build its share of the project according to their contract. The job was supposed to be finished in 2008.

In 2010, Edwards ruled in favor of the state and ordered the company to abide by the contract it signed and complete the project as designed. A year later, after the state alleged the work was still not being done, Edwards briefly jailed Stamper for civil contempt.

In November, following a lengthy hearing, Edwards found the company in contempt for a second time and ordered both Stamper and Moroun, a billionaire trucking mogul, to appear before him in January. At that time he sent both men to jail, ordering them to stay there until the requisite work was completed. That task could take from six to nine months.

According to the Windsor Star, one of the things the judges on the panel wanted to hear from lawyers representing Moroun and Stamper is what, exactly, had the company done to abide by Edwards’ order to complete the project as designed.

The Star’s Chris Vander Doelen reported that Justice Karen Fort Hood specifically inquired: “What has the DIBC [Detroit International Bridge Co.] done

That is my question.”

Hood asked the question three times, “but did not receive a clear answer Thursday,” the reporter noted.

Maybe that’s because the company has made little progress doing the major work necessary to finish the job the way the state says it needs to be done. From what we’ve seen covering the issue, the company has spent years arguing that there are no clearly agreed-upon final plans for it to go by. Edwards has repeatedly found that claim to be false.

The Gongwer News Service reported that attorneys for Moroun and Stamper said “not only did the men not have notice of potential sanctions, the way the order was written provided no immediate way for them to resolve the contempt of court citation. “

Tom Greenwood of The Detroit News had a similar take, reporting: “Attorneys for Moroun and Stamper argued that neither man was aware that they could be jailed and that there was nothing they could immediately do to free themselves and were thus denied due process of law.”

We find the argument that the two men had no notice of the judge’s intentions a curious one. After all, Stamper had already been jailed once before, when Edwards had found the company in contempt last January. So the fact that jail would again be an option could hardly have come as a surprise to anyone. And lawyers for Moroun filed briefs and made an oral argument before Edwards prior to the judge’s decision, claiming that Moroun should not be held responsible.

Edwards listened to the claims, and then dismissed them as invalid.

Sounds like due process to us.

But the law can be a tricky thing. What might seem obvious doesn’t always turn out that way when interpreted by judges.

A ruling from the Court of Appeals is expected before Feb. 9, which is the next scheduled date Stamper and Moroun to be back in front of Edwards.