When Detroit fell from the ranks of America’s top cities (early 1960s, I’d say), there were many things it lost: people, businesses, jobs, splendor and its good reputation. One thing the city kept at the same rate as any other large urban center, however, was governmental hubris and delusional, empty pride.

From the election of Mayor Coleman Young through the failures of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Detroit’s vanity was its most plentiful resource and greatest poison. It was vanity that allowed the city’s voters to look past Young’s many improprieties at a time when more effective management may have prevented the city’s collapse. And it’s that same vanity that allows city council today (I’ll leave Mayor Dave Bing out of this for now) to continue to reject solutions to save the city for the simple reason that they are funded by “outsiders,” managed by “outsiders” or simply are what the “outsiders” want.

As unfortunate and destructive as this arrogance is, I suppose we might understand why Detroit’s elected officials play up this stance. They are politicians and pretending to fight off meddling by outsiders is a good sell to voters. But when Detroit’s press falls into this narrow-minded trap, then things can get much worse still.

In a recent editorial, the Detroit Free Press derided a ruling by St. Clair County Judge Peter Deegan decreeing that Wayne County courts are grossly under-funded and must receive a large influx of funds immediately (A blank check for Wayne County courts is out of order, 11/11/2010). (Detroit is in Wayne County. While the two technically have separate governing structures, Detroit accounts for the vast majority of the activity in the county’s circuit courts. Deegan, a disinterested outside judge, was asked to decide the case for the sake of fairness.)

The Free Press wrote that Wayne County has far bigger problems to deal with. Money is tight and the county certainly doesn’t need an outside judge telling it what to do. Parts of that opinion are defensible, though ultimately wrong. The last part, however, is just an example of Detroit’s press showing the same stubborn defensiveness that has characterized and hindered the city’s government for the better part of five decades.

Yes, Wayne County, like all large urban counties is constantly short on cash. The problem is exacerbated here because of a shrinking tax base and aging infrastructure. And yes, there are many other problems for the city and county to deal with. But Deegan reached his decision not because of some crazy ideal of lavish, luxurious government spending, but rather because he found that unless the courts receive more funding, the county’s residents will be denied access to justice. There may be other places to spend money but funding courts should be a top priority.

My own experience with Wayne County courts and the judicial process in Detroit leads me to believe that Deegan’s conclusion is absolutely correct. In the University Law School’s Innocence Clinic, we file all sorts of motions and requests with courts in various Michigan counties. In no other county is the process as difficult, slow and broken as in Wayne County.

Deegan specifically noted that the Wayne County Clerk’s Office must receive more funds so that it can hire enough staff to bring filings up to date. Having waited on hold over the phone for literally hours and devoted the better part of the day to filing motions in Wayne County (a process that takes mere minutes in any other county and can often be done online), I know that the things Deegan deemed necessary are true necessities for access to justice in Wayne County.

Knowing that the Free Press’s editorial stance is all about equality and justice, I believe it would also agree with Deegan’s solutions if it took a moment to reflect on the grave truth of the problems he means to address. Instead of engaging with honesty and listening with an open mind, the Free Press retreated into a familiar safe zone and took the easy shots at meddling “outsiders” that we’ve seen a thousand times before from Detroit’s elected leaders.

The result is that now, not only can Wayne County officials sit by and do nothing to solve the problems caused by a grossly under-funded court system, but the press will also actually applaud this decision. Neither of the two groups that are supposed to look out for the people — government and the press — are doing their jobs. They sit ensconced in their familiar corner, baring their fangs at any “outsider” who dares to offer help.

Meanwhile, Detroit’s failure continues.

Imran Syed can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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