In approving Detroit’s Plan of Adjustment, bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes is allowing a group of lawsuits to go forward against the city. WDET/NextChapterDetroit.com’s Sandra Svoboda spoke with Attorney Bill Goodman about his clients, their civil rights claims against the city and what the bankruptcy judge decided about their cases.
Goodman: What Judge Rhodes did in his opinion was to say that those people who have sued the city of Detroit and Detroit police officers and other Detroit public officials for violations of their constitutional rights may not go forward in those actions against the city of Detroit itself. The city of Detroit itself can only be sued under this federal civil rights statute for its policies, its practices, its customs. Those cases cannot go forward. But the cases against the individual officers can go forward, the bankruptcy proceeding does not impede those cases from going forward. People can rectify to some extent the wrongs that were done to them, that they can get justice in that way, and the city has to indemnify those police officers. That is if one of my clients sues a Detroit police officer and gets a million-dollar verdict, the city itself has to pay for that police officer’s verdict so that the police officer himself or herself cannot be personally attacked for that.
Svoboda: And when you say they have civil rights complaints, civil rights claims, tell me a little bit about what some of these cases involve.
Goodman: Really, our flagship example is Walter Swift, a man who spend 26 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit and that everyone knows he didn’t commit and was exonerated and released. Still, he has been waiting since this bankruptcy, has been waiting before, cannot go forward with his case, cannot get justice, is personally impoverished and has had his life taken from him. He’s one example. There are others. There are people who have been falsely arrested at raids conducted by the Detroit police department.
Svoboda: So most of what he hear from Judge Rhodes and what we report about the bankruptcy have to do with these complex financial settlements or bankruptcy law itself. Where do these individuals fall within this case?
Goodman: They’re what’s called unliquidated creditors. They’re like anybody whose garbage can was destroyed by a garbage truck and said, you know, “Hey, you guys have to pay for this” Or someone who was in a bus accident. That’s who they are. The difference that they have and that we have asserted is these people are people whose constitutional rights have been violated. And the constitution of the United States in a democracy should be supreme. It should not fall under the wheels of a bankruptcy proceeding.
Svoboda: But Judge Rhodes disagreed with you in his ruling on that piece of it.
Goodman: And I disagree with Judge Rhodes, right back at him.
Svoboda: But your cases now can go forward because in confirming the Plan of Adjustment, as you described at the beginning, discussed how the individual cases could proceed. What’s next for you?
Goodman: Next for us is that our cases start proceeding. In Walter Swift’s case we start taking depositions. We go forward. We go to trial if we need to, and Walter gets to present his case to a jury and have a jury decide whether he’s right or not. That’s how we go, and our case is based upon what he said, and I’m looking for his written opinion. I take it that the stay of proceedings in those cases is going to be lifted as to the individual cops.
Svoboda: What’s the legal history for these claims and how does it play in to the greater legal sense going forward?
Goodman: The Civil Rights Act under which these people have brought their claims is called Section 1983 of the federal code 42 USC. It really is known as the Civil Rights Act of 1871, and it was passed, it was really originally passed in 1866 just at the time the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed. It was passed during a period of huge turmoil in the United States, of the Ku Klux Klan riding high, a birth of a nation racism rampant throughout much of the nation, and it was meant to correct that and hold public officials responsible for what they did. That need, that impulse is still of critical importance not just in 1871, not just in 1961 when that law was made to be really effective by the United States Supreme Court. But today, we need to have a rule of law, and in the United States, in a democracy which we claim to be, that means under the United States Constitution.