Morouns lose on virtually all counts in bridge lawsuit

WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Wednesday dismissed virtually all of the remaining legal counts in a lawsuit against the U.S. government brought by owners of the Ambassador Bridge, rejecting Manuel (Matty) Moroun’s contention that his company has an exclusive rights to operate a span to Canada in Detroit without competition.

The 57-page opinion filed by U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer in Washington represents another victory for proponents of the Gordie Howe International Bridge, a publicly owned span proposed to be built almost entirely at Canada’s expense. It would rival the 86-year-old, privately owned Ambassador Bridge and, if estimates are correct, consume up to 75% of its truck traffic, likely ruining any chance the Morouns have of building their own second span.

Canada has long pursued a publicly owned bridge even as some have argued vociferously against a second Ambassador Bridge span landing from Detroit in a Windsor neighborhood along a road where truck traffic backs up. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, meanwhile, has been a key proponent of the rival span, entering into an agreement with the Canadian government to get it built as a way to create jobs and protect one of the busiest trade borders in the world.

“The decision reaffirms the numerous merits of this critical infrastructure project,” said Sara Wurfel, a spokeswoman for Snyder. “This is just the latest great news regarding the Gordie Howe International Bridge, which is full steam ahead and vital to our shared economic future.”

In her opinion Wednesday, Collyer granted a request by federal officials to dismiss seven of the remaining eight legal arguments brought in the 5-year-old lawsuit by Moroun and his family, who control the Detroit International Bridge Co., which owns and operates the Ambassador Bridge, and have been engaged in a fierce fight to get plans for their own second span authorized and block the rival span.

Even though only one count remains in the lawsuit before Collyer, however, it is no guarantee that the Morouns are ready to give up the fight: They have filed myriad legal suits and spent millions on an unsuccessful ballot attempt to stop the rival bridge. After an earlier decision by Collyer to dismiss a legal count leveled against the U.S. Coast Guard for previously rejecting the Morouns’ request for a permit for their own second span, the company filed an action that is still pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

A request for comment from bridge officials wasn’t immediately returned, so it’s not known if they intend to appeal Collyer’s new decision, which recognized the economic hit the new bridge could have on the Ambassador Bridge and its traffic but shot down any arguments that federal authorities have engaged in a “consistent and repeated pattern of conduct that discriminates” in favor of the proposed new Canadian span.

Collyer also rejected an argument that a presidential permit granted the new span by the U.S. State Department in 2013 was invalidated because of constitutional concerns the Morouns raised about the 1972 International Bridge Act giving the president authority to sign off on international spans as well as the bridge company’s bold claims that acts of Congress and the Canadian Parliament gave it an “exclusive franchise” to operate a bridge in the area.

While agreeing that the legislative acts in the two nations in the 1920s gave the bridge company a valid argument to raise in court, Collyer said the plaintiff bridge company lawyers “overplay their hand” by suggesting, absent a specific statute, “an exclusive bridge franchise which the federal government cannot interfere (with) in perpetuity.”

“The DIBC Act contains no express or implied grant of exclusivity or perpetuity,” she wrote. “The fact that the competing (Gordie Howe Bridge) may diminish the value of the Ambassador Bridge or impair the economic viability of building (its own) New Span does not support Plaintiffs’ franchise claim. … Without a government grant of perpetual exclusivity, (the argument) is reduced to a complaint about unfair increased competition and reduced profit margins.”

Collyer also rejected a claim under the Equal Protection Act suggesting the rival span and the proposed second span of the Ambassador Bridge aren’t being treated the same, finding no evidence of that. She also ruled in favor of the State Department’s authority to issue a presidential permit to the Gordie Howe Bridge under federal procedures, noting that the Ambassador Bridge doesn’t need one for a second span.

But she left one count alive in the lawsuit before her: an argument that the State Department could have potentially violated rules regarding administrative procedures if, as the Morouns allege, the so-called crossing agreement between the State of Michigan and the Canadian government is in violation of Michigan law.

Snyder, who has been instrumental in moving the proposed rival span forward, has rejected any such argument as have other supporters of the bridge. The bridge company, on the other hand, has maintained that the Legislature took steps to try to stop the proposed Canadian span and that Snyder went around them by reaching an agreement with Canada.

The Morouns have been hit lately with what could be a spate of bad news: In addition to Wednesday’s dismissals, the Free Press reported recently that the family in August hosted a $25,000-a-plate dinner for U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, who last week announced his retirement at the end of next month. Another company controlled by the Morouns gave a $300,000 contribution to a Super PAC supporting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has suspended his presidential campaign.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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