Rhodes Reflects on Detroit Bankruptcy Case

Judge: If media had asked, they likely could have broadcast Detroit bankruptcy proceedings.

The judge who oversaw Detroit’s bankruptcy case says he wishes the court proceedings would have been broadcast live so that the public could have had better access to them. If the media had asked, he would have “likely” approved the request, he says.

Retired Judge Steven Rhodes spoke today at a breakfast attended by nearly 300 people in Ann Arbor. Gov. Rick Snyder also addressed the crowd, largely thanking Rhodes and Chief U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen, who acted as chief mediator in the case. Rosen is considered the architect of the “grand bargain,” the deal that brought in state and private money to fund city pensions in exchange for artwork at the Detroit Institute of Arts not being sold to pay creditors.

In his remarks — which ranged from how the case affected him emotionally to what he thought of the attorneys who represented the city and creditors to how the case represents Michigan’s collective commitment to help the city — Rhodes focused on both details of legal proceedings and broad historical trends.

He started by outlining how Detroit went bankrupt, citing decades of population decline and the failure of leaders to significantly address financial issues.

“The city was what we antiseptically call ‘service-delivery insolvent.’ But what it meant was, day in and day out, the lack of municipal services was causing its residents real injury and read hardship,” Rhodes said.

When the bankruptcy was filed, he said some people were angry, a feeling that continued at least to some extent as the case proceeded.

But the relatively fast resolution of the $18 billion case had four keys that Rhodes cited: strong judicial management, “persuasive and innovative mediation,” good lawyering and a “widespread belief” that the city deserved a fresh start.

Rhodes said the media largely did a good job in covering the case, quickly correcting errors when they made them.

But he said media outlets missed an opportunity. Unlike state courts, federal courts do not allow media to record audio or video of their proceedings. During Detroit’s bankruptcy trial, the public’s access was limited. People could show up to watch and listen or they could follow media accounts.

Rhodes said he wishes media outlets had formally asked him through a legal motion if they could record or broadcast the proceedings. He says he “likely” would have granted it.

“I thought the public had a right to see its elected officials testify in these proceedings,” Rhodes said. That list included Snyder, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, City Council President Brenda Jones and former Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.


  • Sandra Svoboda
    Recovering Bankruptcy Reporter/Blogger looking forward to chronicling regional revitalization on-air, digitally and through community engagement.