Detroit bankruptcy foes beg for judge's help

'Protect ... these people:' Detroiters get 3 minutes to tell judge why they oppose bankruptcy

Associated Press
Detroit bankruptcy foes beg for judge's help

View photo

Detroit resident Aleta Atchison-Jorgan, addresses the media outside federal court in Detroit, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013 after attending a Detroit bankruptcy hearing. Dozens of residents have told a judge why they oppose Detroit's bankruptcy, but they had to do it in three minutes or less. "Hopefully he (the judge) heard all the comments. Hopefully he'll take everything into account. And hopefully he'll be fair and impartial." (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

DETROIT (AP) -- It all came down to three minutes.

It took decades of mismanagement to build the massive problems that plunged Detroit into bankruptcy. Lawyers will spend months in court sorting out the city's finances.

But the people most affected, the retirees and residents, often aren't at the table. For a few brief moments Thursday, they got the chance to tell a judge about what the mistakes will mean for them. How they'll make ends meet. How they feel robbed after decades of service. How the city seems on the verge of breaking the promise of a pension.

But each had just three minutes — 180 seconds — to make the case.

Some used canes. Some wore their Sunday best. All were passionate, even when soft-spoken. For the first time since the city filed for Chapter 9 protection, surrendering under $18 billion in long-term debt, most attorneys were in the back row listening while taxpayers were at the front talking.

"I object to being referred to as a creditor," said retiree Paulette Brown, a former water department employee who got notice of the bankruptcy because her pension is at risk. "What I am is a dedicated public servant. ... Who's going to prison for the proposed cruelty to retirees?"

City resident Sylvester Davis invoked a higher power: "If you've got God in you," he told the judge, "do the right thing. Disallow this mess."

Judge Steven Rhodes replied: "Well spoken, sir."

Detroit has filed for bankruptcy protection but that question remains unsettled until a trial in late October. Creditors, residents and others have a right to object to the city's eligibility. And under the rules, they also have a right to be heard.

A red light went on if speakers exceeded the three-minute limit, but the judge was generous, often allowing people to keep talking. He left it to a courtroom guard to remove anyone who simply wouldn't stop.

The judge clearly was moved by the hearing and called the remarks "thoughtful, compassionate, compelling."

Indeed, most objections were deeply personal. Retirees frightened that pensions could be reduced told Rhodes that monthly payments are a life ring that keeps them out of poverty. The Michigan Constitution says public pensions can't be impaired, although Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr and his legal team say that doesn't automatically make them off limits in a bankruptcy.

Rhodes heard many complaints about Orr, appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to fix Detroit's finances. He recommended bankruptcy and is not accountable to voters. Critics argue the state's emergency manager law is unconstitutional and, as a result, makes the bankruptcy case illegitimate.

"I call on you to protect these flesh-and-blood people ... over corporations who preyed on the city of Detroit and knew better," said William Hickey, a resident for more than 50 years who tends community gardens.

Cynthia Blair said she relies on a $3,000-a-month pension earned by her husband, a police sergeant, who died in 2004. Jacqueline Esters, a pensioner who made $2.24 an hour when she got her first city job in 1968, summed up her view of Detroit these days as "promises made, promises broken."

Aleta Atchison-Jorgan worked in the housing department when she retired in 2004 after 30 years with Detroit. She spent hours on her computer studying pension details, then typed her thoughts and practiced speaking in front of her husband before appearing in court.

"I'm not a mathematician. I wanted to know what I was talking about. We're entitled to a pension. ... Why would I sit back?" Atchison-Jorgan later said outside court.

Another Detroit resident, Jean Vortkamp, got emotional as she described the bleak state of city services. She said the body of a young homicide victim remained on her street for five hours before being removed.

"Detroit is not an airline or a cupcake company. We are a family that deserves respect," Vortkamp told the judge.

After listening for more than three hours, the judge summoned an attorney for the city, Bruce Bennett, who acknowledged the anxieties of retirees and said "bankruptcy is never a good thing."

Nonetheless, he added, Detroit's problems are "enormously complex."

Rhodes kept his attention on the speakers, rarely looking away as they stood a few feet from him at a microphone. He said anyone with a stake in the case who couldn't attend the hearing should listen to a recording on the court's website, especially Snyder and Orr.

"Democracy demands nothing less," Rhodes said.


Follow Ed White at


View Comments (5)

Recommended for You


    Argentina's stock market is tanking after the...

    Business Insider
  • Airbus adamant no room for more talks in cancelled Japan jet deal

    Airbus on Thursday said its decision to cancel a $2.2 billion jet order from Skymark Airlines was final, rejecting the Japanese carrier's suggestion that talks were still ongoing. The European aircraft maker said this week it had informed Skymark that its purchase of six A380 superjumbos "has been…

  • Just Announced - Huge Discounts on All Cruises

    Book your cruise vacation today and receive incredible savings. Sail to Alaska, the Caribbean, Europe, Hawaii and more with amazing cruise deals.

    AdChoicesDirect Line CruisesSponsored
  • In San Francisco real estate, $1M won't buy much

    SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — San Francisco Association of Realtors President Betty Taisch has two words of advice for those who want to live here and think $1 million will buy them their dream house: Think again.

    Associated Press
  • Obama to GOP: 'Stop just hating all the time'

    KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Pointing the finger at Republicans for congressional inaction, President Barack Obama chided lawmakers Wednesday for spending the waning days before their month-long summer break trying to sue him rather than addressing economic issues that could boost the middle class.

    Associated Press
  • Tesla posts 2Q loss, prepares Nevada factory site

    PALO ALTO, Calif. (AP) — Electric car maker Tesla Motors widened its loss in the second quarter as it prepared for the launch of a new SUV and started work on a massive new battery plant.

    Associated Press
  • US warns against traveling to Ebola-hit countries

    NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. health officials on Thursday warned Americans not to travel to the three West African countries hit by an outbreak of Ebola.

    Associated Press
  • 3D Systems Shares Are Cratering

    Shares in 3D Systems were down more than 12% in...

    Business Insider
  • Play

    Why Do Millennials Prefer Cash to Investing Money?

    In the last year, the S&P 500 delivered 17% and cash investments delivered 1%. Which would you rather have? In a Bankrate study, millennials said they'd rather have the cash. The Mutual Fund Store's Senior Vice President of Investments Andy Smith joins Simon Constable on the News Hub to discuss.…

    WSJ Live
  • Tycoon Worth $62.9 Billion Shares Money Secret

    This billionaire investing wizard has a dead-simple system for making money you can start using today.

    AdChoicesThe Motley FoolSponsored
  • 4 Unusual Savings Strategies That Really Work

    It's just one of those facts of life: Saving money can be really hard. If you're trying to save and not getting ahead, it might be time to try one of these easy, everyday savings habits that will help you tighten your finances.

    U.S.News & World Report LP
  • What SunPower Earnings Mean for First Solar and SolarCity

    After markets close Thursday, solar panel maker SunPower will report second-quarter results. Competitors First Solar and SolarCity are scheduled to report results next week.

    24/7 Wall St.
  • Wisconsin Supreme Court upholds 2011 union law

    MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The fight over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's signature policy achievement, a law effectively ending collective bargaining for most public employees, ended Thursday with the state Supreme Court declaring it to be constitutional.

    Associated Press
  • Sanctions will damage Russia if not lifted quickly

    MOSCOW (AP) — U.S. and European sanctions against Russia's energy and finance sectors are strong enough to cause deep, long-lasting damage within months unless Moscow persuades the West to repeal them by withdrawing support for Ukrainian insurgents.

    Associated Press
  • Adidas shares plunge 13% after Russia warning

    Adidas shares tanked more than 13 percent after it cut its profit targets for 2014, warning "tensions" in Russia would hit its bottom line.

  • Bank of America ordered to pay $1.27 billion for 'Hustle' fraud

    By Jonathan Stempel NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge on Wednesday ordered Bank of America Corp to pay a $1.27 billion penalty for fraud over shoddy mortgages sold by the former Countrywide Financial Corp. U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff in Manhattan ruled after a jury last October found the…

  • Would You Like to Engage Your Audience?

    Group response systems for meeting events. Local & remote locations, training, voting, market research, game shows, polling with smartphones.

    AdChoicesAudience Response SystemsSponsored
  • Why You Should Prepare for the Next Bear Market Now

    The stock market is going gangbusters these days, with the S&P 500 close to surpassing 2,000 points. While the index may never fall back to that level, bear markets will one day hit us hard again. It's a good idea to develop a plan for the next bear market now, while your asset values aren't free…

    U.S.News & World Report LP
  • 5 Little-Known Ways to Boost Your Retirement Savings

    Saving for retirement is no easy task. Fortunately, we have several tools and strategies that can help us reach our retirement goals. Maintain your asset allocation. When you begin investing you typically select an asset allocation that suits your risk tolerance and investment goals.

    U.S.News & World Report LP
  • Play

    Tesla's Earnings: What to Watch For

    Electric-car maker Tesla is scheduled to be released after the bell Thursday, and Mike Ramsey joins MoneyBeat with Paul Vigna to preview the results.

    WSJ Live
  • Panasonic, Tesla to build giant battery plant in US

    Japanese electronics giant Panasonic and US electric vehicle maker Tesla Motors said Thursday they will jointly build and operate a huge lithium ion battery plant known as the Gigafactory. Under the deal, Tesla will run the operations at the proposed US-based plant, while its Japanese partner will…

  • Alcatel-Lucent cuts losses but shares slump

    Telecommunication equipment group Alcatel-Lucent said Thursday it cut net losses by more than half in the second quarter as it battles to rebuild after years of setbacks. Alcatel-Lucent said its quarterly net loss was 298 million euros ($399 million), down from 885 million euros for the same period…

  • Play

    3 Fund Ideas for a Tax-Efficient Portfolio

    Index funds aren't the only vehicles suitable for taxable accounts, and Morningstar's Russ Kinnel offers three names that can help minimize the tax hit.

  • 10 Best Active Pro Sports Athletes

    Choosing a list of top 10 pro sports athletes isn't an easy task. There are so many great ones to choose from. This bunch is the best of the best.

    AdChoicesAnswers SportsSponsored