Detroit’s guitar-playing bankruptcy judge tuned in to people

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Those exchanges, said Wayne State University law professor Laura Bartell, reveal his professional bearings. She said in his nearly 30 years on the bench in Detroit, Rhodes has guided far more individuals through the bankruptcy process than public or private entities. Detroit’s other most famous bankruptcy reorganizations, General Motors and Chrysler, were filed in New York.

“You’ve got to remember, bankruptcy in Detroit is about people,” said Bartell, who has invited Rhodes to speak to her classes and knows him through academic circles because of his roles as an adjunct professor and lecturer at the University of Michigan Law School, his alma mater. “He’s not going to allow big-city lawyers to come in and tell him that people are not important.”

Both Bartell and University of Michigan law professor John Pottow say Rhodes was the right judge selected to oversee the complex and unusual case, and he accepted the assignment as he was planning to retire.

“He’s going to stay on … because he wanted to finish this case out,” Pottow said.

Pottow said Rhodes realizes “the plight of the city and workers,” who lack the federal pension protections of their private sector counterparts.

“This case is moving him,” said Pottow, who also welcomes Rhodes back to speak and teach. “Rhodes is trying to shame the political leaders to do something about this. … There’s a moment where he can say things, and I think he’s taking advantage of the moment.”

When he’s free of the dark robe, he plays in a band, the Indubitable Equivalents. The band’s web site says the off-hours rhythm guitarist first serenaded his wife, Kathy, then his daughters and granddaughters, with songs such as “Sound of Silence,” ”Eve of Destruction” and “Sloop John B.”

Another piece of his past diverges from jurisprudence, at least at first blush: Rhodes received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University in 1970, three years before earning his law degree at Michigan.

Graves said he used to tease Rhodes about being “half-Boilermaker and half-Wolverine,” but the retired judge said Rhodes puts his first degree to good use.

“As an engineer, he wants thoroughness, completeness and precision — he’s not a fan of sloppy lawyering,” Graves said. “I’d say to him, ‘Human beings are messy and sloppy. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have these jobs.'”

Graves said Rhodes isn’t likely to leave any loose ends, something that’s important in such a high-profile case.

“He knows he’s writing on a blank slate — a new law for the country — and he wants to get it right,” Graves said. “Chapter 9 is a new model for all distressed cities in the country. … He’s not passing this off on anybody else.”

___

Associated Press writer Ed White contributed to this story.

___Follow Jeff Karoub on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jeffkaroub

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