Exiting chief judge Rosen: I’ll miss living on edge

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit’s federal courthouse has hosted some of America’s most significant and sensational criminal and civil cases in the last seven years.

The trial of a Nigerian man convicted of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner with explosives in his underwear, widespread public corruption at Detroit City Hall, anti-trust auto parts, the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy and same-sex marriage equality all played out inside Detroit’s federal courthouse under the watch of its outgoing chief U.S. district judge, Gerald E. Rosen.

While Detroit’s complex bankruptcy dominated the docket from 2013 to 2014, Rosen — who led the mediation team that helped Detroit exit its record-setting bankruptcy in just 18 months — said activity inside the courthouse and around its hallways during his term as chief judge has been astonishing in its pace and progress.

“Whether it’s on the criminal docket side or civil docket side, the biggest cases get brought to the federal courts, the most impactful,” Rosen said from his chambers on the seventh floor of the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse, a neoclassical revival building in downtown Detroit built in 1934.

“Whether it is terrorism, whether it’s social or cultural cases such as same-sex marriage, the bankruptcy: These cases have been at the intersection of society,” he said. “The role the court has played in the city and region — it’s had tremendous impact.”

Rosen’s term as chief judge of the Eastern District of Michigan ends Dec. 31, but the 64-year-old says he has no plans to retire.

“I don’t feel old enough to begin thinking about legacy and capstones,” he said. “I feel like I have a lot of energy and a lot left to do and a lot left to give.”

As chief judge since 2009, Rosen has held a full docket while managing the court’s $26 million annual budget and staff of 430 spread out across five courthouses in the eastern half of the state, in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Flint and Port Huron.

He has presided over secretive federal grand juries, which are composed of up to 23 citizens who in some cases have worked as long as 2 1/2 years to hand down some of the most sensational indictments in Detroit’s history, including a 38-count indictment against former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his associates.

Rosen, who will be succeeded by U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood as chief Jan. 1, said he also took time to try to make the courthouse more engaged with the public.

He, with the help of Judge Damon J. Keith, created the President’s Wall on the courthouse’s first floor, where portraits hang of every former and the current U.S. president, as well as quotes related to justice and equal rights.

Rosen also tackled jury diversity, changing the jury selection process and holding community forums to increase diversity among the Eastern District’s jury pool.

The court’s first media liaison, Rod Hansen, was hired by Rosen in 2010 to help the court move from “working in a culture of secrecy and nondisclosure” to being more transparent.

“The court itself cannot be remote,” Rosen said. “We are very much part of this community. To the extent we can, we have to participate in it and allow people to participate with us. There is a lot we can’t talk about, but there is a lot we can and a lot of things we can do.”

A history buff who has an affinity for Winston Churchill, the British prime minister during World War II, Rosen says the federal judiciary is his passion.

He has become especially attached to his chambers with its 14-foot ceilings, enormous windows overlooking downtown, hurricane glass and brass chandeliers, and a table surrounded by 10 stately leather chairs.

“I love these chambers, and I can’t imagine ever having it so historic and meaningful for me and connections for the court,” he said. “The conference table here in chambers has been here since the 1950s. Lots of important things have happened at this table. I asked all chief judges to sign the drawer at the table, with permanent marker.”

Rosen, once a prominent player in state Republican politics who ran unsuccessfully for Congress against Democrat Sander Levin in 1982, also has become attached to the historic “million dollar” courtroom where he has ruled as chief. It is where he was sworn in as a lawyer in 1979, where he took his oath as judge in 1990 and where he said his wedding vows in 1994.

It is also where the city’s bankruptcy was mediated, an opulent room that reminds visitors of Detroit’s former wealth and a chapter in the city’s legacy.

“I’ll miss living on the edge, the adrenaline rush,” Rosen said of experience as mediator in the city’s bankruptcy. “I love this job. I want to continue to be a judge.”

When not ruling on matters for the court, Rosen likes to indulge in another love: interior decorating.

He designed the court’s conference center inside the courthouse, where all 23 judges meet to discuss general business. He also redesigned a room on the courthouse’s first floor where citizenship ceremonies are performed weekly, turning it from a dull, pale, functional space into a warm, colorful gathering spot with photos of Detroit’s past decorating the walls.

Among other accomplishments Rosen counts as chief judge: an estimated $140 million in renovations coming to the 770,000-square-foot courthouse at 231 W. Lafayette that takes up an entire city block.

Work started last month and will continue over the next three to four years when all infrastructure will be replaced and the basement parking garage will be renovated so prisoners and staff are not sharing the space.

Robert Sedler, a professor at Wayne State University Law School, where he teaches courses in constitutional law, said the federal court system has such a diverse jurisdiction because it is where claims arise under the U.S. Constitution.

The challenge against Michigan’s ban on same-sex adoption was first attempted in state court, where it failed, Sedler said. The plaintiffs turned to federal court because, Sedler said, judges enjoy lifetime tenure and aren’t going to be influenced by politics.

“We rely on the federal courts to protect the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the law of the United States ...,” Sedler said.

“It’s so interesting and so important because in every time frame you will find important constitutional cases in federal court,” Sedler said. “There is a saying, ‘The Constitution changes everything.’ ”