Judge involved in Detroit bankruptcy turns to new job

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

The federal judge who engineered an $820 million philanthropy deal that pulled Detroit from the depths of the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history is ready for his second act.

U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen is retiring from the federal bench on Tuesday after 26 years, hanging up his black robe for a job in the private sector as a mediator, a role he relished in the city’s bankruptcy case that lasted from 2013 to 2014.

“At 65, you may not get a lot of chances,” Rosen said. “F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives. I am hoping to prove him wrong.”

On Wednesday, Rosen will open a Detroit branch of Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Services.

There, he will join former retired U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes, who presided over the Detroit bankruptcy case; Clarence “Rocky” Pozza Jr., a retiring partner at Detroit-based Miller Canfield Paddock & Stone, and Mary Beth Kelly, a former Michigan Supreme Court justice.

And even though the city’s bankruptcy is over, Rosen said he relives many of its moments often, whether it’s when a stranger stops him to talk about the case in the grocery store or as part of a book he has written on the subject that is being offered to a film and a book agent.

“I’ve loved every minute of it,” Rosen said of his time on the bench. “But it’s time for me to do something else.”

But that “something else” does not include plans to run for any office, he said.

Rosen’s professional life can be broken into three chapters: before Detroit’s historic Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the bankruptcy itself and his future life outside the walls of Detroit’s federal courthouse.

Rosen led the mediation team that helped Detroit exit its record-setting municipal bankruptcy in just 18 months. He is credited with rallying foundations in Michigan and from across the nation into investing hundreds of millions to save Detroit and its prized city-owned art collection from creditors.

But there are many other cases in which Rosen — nominated by President George H. W. Bush in 1989 and chief judge from 2009 to 2015 — established himself as a notable jurist in the Eastern District of Michigan, which serves Metro Detroit and the eastern half of the lower peninsula.

In 1997, Rosen was among the first federal judges in the nation to overturn a state ban on partial-birth abortions, saying the law was unconstitutionally vague.

The same year, he ruled the state could prosecute Dr. Jack Kevorkian, holding that the U.S. Constitution provides no legal protection for physician-assisted suicide.

In 2004, he presided over the Detroit Sleeper Cell case, the first criminal trial to result from the federal 9/11 terrorism probe. Though a jury convicted three North African immigrants in the case, Rosen overturned the convictions after discovering that prosecutors had withheld evidence favorable to the defendants.

Margaret Sind Raben, who has practiced law for 30 years in Metro Detroit, including as a defense attorney in the terrorism case, said the judge’s decision to toss the convictions was nothing less than heroic.

“Despite the fact we had tied up his courtroom for months — it was a very expensive trial with the platooning of federal marshals in for security — he took these claims very, very seriously,” Raben said.

Then in 2011, Rosen dismissed a lawsuit filed by the family of Tamara Greene, a 27-year-old exotic dancer who was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2003, some eight months after supposedly dancing at a rumored — but never proven — party at Detroit’s mayoral mansion.

Rosen said there was no evidence that former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick or city officials sabotaged Greene’s murder investigation to protect the mayor or his wife, Carlita Kilpatrick.

“I have practiced in front of him for more than 20 years, and I have not always agreed with his rulings, but I always came out of his courtroom and the case believing I was now a better a lawyer,” Raben said. “That’s a pretty significant thing to say about any judge. He is a cogent teacher of the law, of evidence. ... He is good at explaining where he came from and how he came to this particular point of view.”

Rosen, a former congressional aide who mounted an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1982, is credited with improving the diversity of the jury pool in his district, persuading the General Services Administration to spend $140 million to renovate the courthouse in Detroit and guiding the court through budget cutbacks without layoffs.

“People are going to judge the value of my service based on the larger cases I handled. I hope people will believe I was a fair judge, not afraid to make the hard calls,” Rosen said during an interview in his chambers on the seventh floor of Detroit’s federal courthouse.

“But now I couldn’t imagine going back to being a lawyer. I like trying to bring people together. I’ve always enjoyed it. The bankruptcy was a Rubik’s cube, and each set of the parties was a Rubik’s cube. I enjoyed the challenge of getting everything to fit together.”

Rosen said he is working with two agents on the bankruptcy book: one a book agent and the other a Hollywood-based film agent.

Detroit native and actor Keegan-Michael Key is “very much involved in putting a package together” to get a film and book deal on the bankruptcy, Rosen said.

U.S. Chief District Judge Denise Paige Hood praised Rosen’s ability to generate camaraderie among coworkers.

Judges at the court work together “a really long period of time because everyone is appointed for the period of their good behavior,” she said.

“We are all working here together, and we are going to work here a long time. He generated friendship and a family-like feeling at the court,” Hood said of Rosen. “And he loves being a judge. He enthusiastically loves being a judge.”

When problems needed addressing around the courthouse, whether it was an operations issue or conflict, as chief judge, Rosen always found a way to work out the issue, Hood said.

“There are some sticky things that come up. And I think in some instances, he was really good at taking those sticky things and unsticking them,” Hood said. “They aren’t things that make or break a court but are things that can impact how the work goes forward. He was good at doing that.”

There is no timeline as to when a new judge will be appointed by President Donald Trump. Hood said all of Rosen’s cases have been sent by blind draw to remaining judges on the bench.

The next appointment to the Eastern District is likely to be based in Flint, Hood said.