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Outgoing chief judge reflects on his tenure at helm of U.S. Court

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

The title is gone, as are some of the trappings like the use of one of the most magnificent courtrooms in the country, but his legacy is firmly intact as “the very paradigm of a chief judge.”

For the past seven years, Gerald Rosen has earned praise for deftly guiding the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, a sprawling judicial operation with 23 judges, seven magistrates, five courthouses, 400-plus employees, and a seemingly unending supply of administrative headaches that span the fiscal and security spectrums.

As chief judge since 2008, he has been faced with countless budgetary and legal challenges, while also staring down the barrel of a municipal bankruptcy case that threatened to leave a once great city in shambles.

Yet through it all, Rosen has “made his mark” as one of the “foremost leaders” in the history of the Detroit-based federal court, according to U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn, the most senior member of the Eastern District bench.

“Since 1948, the District has had nine chief judges,” Cohn said in introducing Rosen at the 2015 State of the Court luncheon last fall. “I have either practiced before or served under all nine in my work as a lawyer and as a judge. He has been the very paradigm of a chief judge.

“In the more than 30 years since he became a lawyer, Judge Rosen, aside from his skills as a judge, has been a masterful litigator, teacher, author, and community leader,” Cohn said. “As chief judge, his accomplishments are multi-fold.”

The comments were echoed by Cohn’s colleague, Judge David Lawson, a member of the federal bench since 2000.

“Judge Rosen has developed the knack of listening to his colleagues’ suggestions, affording everyone the opportunity to state their views, taking them into account, and then making decisions for the betterment of the court,” said Lawson, who specialized in criminal defense and litigation work during his 24-year career in private practice. “He has been a collegial chief judge in the best traditions of the court. It has been a privilege to have served with him.”

Like Lawson, Cohn was appointed to the court by a Democratic president, a political fact of life that could have altered their view of Rosen, a one-time Republican candidate for Congress who was appointed to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush. But instead, both share an admiration for Rosen that transcends political differences.

Said Cohn, in his remarks before the Federal Bar Association luncheon last fall: “He has led the judges of the court and our committees of judges with fairness, and always with the goal in mind of consensus in decision-making and never by fiat.”

Judge Nancy Edmunds, who presided over the “Underwear Bomber” case as well as the corruption trial of former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, has the utmost respect for Rosen’s work at the helm of the court.

“Judge Rosen always put the interests of the court above all else,” said Edmunds, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1992. “He could not have been more committed to the cause of the administration of justice throughout his 8-1/2 years as chief judge, including the year-and-a-half he filled in for Judge (Bernard) Friedman when he was ill.

“On top of all that he has done on behalf of the court and the community, Jerry has been a very loyal and hard-working friend who has earned the respect of everyone on the bench for his skill and dedication.”

Rosen, who grew up in Oak Park and once was a legislative aide to U.S. Senator Robert Griffin (R-Michigan), has been credited during his tenure as chief judge with spiriting a series of changes and improvements to the court operation. Among his accomplishments, according to his colleagues, is championing an effort to improve the diversity of the jury pool in the Eastern District, a geographic area encompassing the eastern half of the Lower Peninsula that includes courthouses in the population centers of Detroit, Ann Arbor, Flint, Bay City, and Port Huron.

He also has earned kudos for helping secure upward of $140 million in funds for the renovation of the Theodore Levin United States Courthouse in Detroit, an aging 770,000-square-foot structure that spans a city block on West Lafayette, a short walk from Campus Martius and the new-found bustle of Woodward Avenue.

On the flip side, Rosen has utilized his management skills to steer the court “through significant shortfalls in our appropriations without layoffs or furloughs of personnel,” Judge Cohn indicated. The challenge came to a head during the budget sequestration of 2013 when automatic spending cuts took place as part of a federal austerity program.

Tom Cranmer, a prominent criminal defense attorney with Miller Canfield and a past president of the State Bar of Michigan, said the community owes Rosen a debt of gratitude.

“Historically, we have been blessed in this district with a number of excellent chief judges,” said Cranmer, who has been a sought-after legal commentator on television and radio over the course of his career. “Judge Rosen certainly met this standard during his tenure as the chief. In addition to his outstanding work in the Detroit bankruptcy matter, one of his lasting legacies will be the substantial renovation funding that he and his colleagues were able to secure for the courthouse renovation project. Maintaining and updating the federal courthouse will be a blessing to the citizens of this district for decades to come.”

Rosen, who received his bachelor’s degree from Kalamazoo College where he played on the tennis team after earning all-state honors in high school, is proud of efforts to improve community relations and transparency by hiring former WJR newscaster Rod Hansen as the court’s media information officer in 2010, while also heralding the “pro bono counsel” program that is a model for other courts across the nation.

Then, of course, there was his role as chief mediator in the “Detroit Chapter 9 Bankruptcy Proceedings,” a legal minefield that Rosen navigated over a 17-month period from July 2013 to December 2014 (see related story). Gene Gargaro, now in his 13th year as chairman of the board of the Detroit Institute of Arts, credits Rosen with being a “life-saver” for the DIA and the Detroit cultural community.

“I first met Judge Rosen in November 2013 when he and (attorney) Eugene Driker were putting the framework together for what would come to be known as the ‘Grand Bargain,’” Gargaro related. 

“It quickly became clear to me that we were very fortunate to have someone of his intelligence and passion for problem-solving helping lead the way at such a critical stage for the City of Detroit and its citizens. He was committed to helping the city exit bankruptcy as a viable entity, while preserving employee pensions and saving one of the great art institutes in the country.”

While much of the success of the plan rested on securing funding support from the state and major foundations, the DIA also would be asked to have some “skin in the game,” according to Gargaro.

“After Judge Rosen secured funding commitments from the foundation community and the state, he then met with me in January of 2014 to lay out our need to raise $100 million as part of this $870 million ‘Grand Bargain,’” Gargaro said.

“I didn’t have any idea how we would be able to raise that kind of money in the time frame we were given, but he offered his support in helping us state our case to potential donors.”

Within the span of 10 months, the DIA hit its fund-raising goal, adding a key financial piece to the bankruptcy exit strategy.

“The ultimate success of the bankruptcy plan would not have happened had it not been for Judge Rosen, and that is not just my opinion, but one that is universally held,” said Gargaro, who last spring was honored with the DIA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

“He was instrumental in helping the DIA remain a building block for the continued revitalization of Detroit.”

Now, just days after the ceremonial “passing of the gavel” to Denise Page Hood, his successor as chief judge, Rosen will continue to be challenged by a demanding judicial schedule that also includes teaching an evidence class at Wayne State Law School.

This year marks his 24th year of teaching evidence, courses that he has taught at Wayne, University of Detroit Law, Cooley, and the University of Michigan Law School.

Rosen said he enjoys the “interactions with law students,” recalling his days attending night classes at George Washington University Law School. His final exams can be particularly testy, weaving themes from his love of baseball and James Bond movies such as “Goldfinger.”

Students, undoubtedly, have been “shaken” and “stirred” by such test tactics, but Rosen is steadfast in his belief that the ability to “think like a lawyer” has served him well in his time as chief judge.

“It has been a real privilege to serve this great institution as its chief,” said Rosen. “We are central to the community and it’s important that we help the people understand what we do in the administration of justice.

“I wish Judge Hood all the best as my successor, and I’m confident that the future of the court is in very good hands.”
 

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