While the abandoned construction site of the failed Wayne County Jail project in downtown Detroit is a constant reminder of a $300-million government development gone off the rails, it also foreshadows another expensive hit yet to come for county taxpayers.

Tucked away in a file in St. Clair County Circuit Court in Port Huron is a 14-page settlement agreement between Wayne County and the Third Judicial Circuit of Michigan, which operates five courts in Detroit. The settlement represents a ticking financial time bomb.

The agreement was signed in October 2011 by Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano and then Chief Judge Virgil C. Smith of the Wayne Circuit Court after the county lost two lawsuits filed in 2008 and 2009. The lawsuits were brought by judges over a lack of infrastructure upgrade funding and substandard courthouse conditions.

St. Clair County Circuit Court Judge Peter E. Deegan heard the case. The lawsuits demanded that the county pay more to properly fund and
staff courtroom operations and to upgrade or rebuild court facilities, including the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice.

The agreement, which was later endorsed by the Wayne County Board of Commissioners, spelled out that the “Third Circuit will either operate entirely out of a (new) consolidated courthouse or the county will refurbish the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice and it will be physically attached to the consolidated courthouse.”

The agreement obligates the county to consult with the Circuit Court on the design of the new consolidated courthouse and the makeover of the Frank Murphy facility. Furthermore, the county is bound by the agreement to provide the latest technology to modernize the operations of
both courts.

Construction of the new courthouse adjacent to Frank Murphy was to begin upon completion of the new jail, the agreement said.

However, the collapse of the Gratiot jail project leaves the county with a promise, but without a plan. A new courthouse would be years in coming, even if the county were to immediately take over the state prison site at Mound Road for another attempt at building a criminal justice campus.

Robert J. Colombo Jr., the chief judge of the 63-member Wayne County Circuit bench, says the county and the Court are in negotiations about what to do next. “It’s going to take some time,” Colombo says. “We recognize the county doesn’t have the money to build us a brand-new courthouse. You can’t build a courthouse in a day. It’s probably five years down the road.”

Testimony in the trial painted a dismal picture of depressing conditions — not only in the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, but also in the Lincoln Hall of Justice, where cases involving juveniles are adjudicated, as well as in the downtown Penobscot Building that houses the Friend of the Court operations.

In a blistering ruling against Wayne County, Judge Deegan said the three court facilities “have been in such pathetic condition that they have not been fit for man nor beast.”

The judge went on to write that the facilities “are neither safe nor clean and it would appear that if the fire marshal or health department were to inspect them, there is a good chance they would be closed down.”

Since then, Colombo said the county responded positively and has been doing a good job of cleaning up the buildings with help from a new maintenance company. A recently signed 10-year lease with the owners of the Penobscot Building provides expanded space and two courtrooms, while additional court space was made available in the nearby Marquette Building.

The Wayne Circuit Court’s interest in the county following through on its agreement could be a major factor in the outcome of a $160 million lawsuit Wayne County filed this year against the major contractors who were building the new county jail.

In March, Marilyn Peters — an attorney with Detroit-based Dykema, which represents one of the jail contractors — filed a motion to disqualify the entire Wayne County Circuit Court from hearing the lawsuit.

Peters asked that the case be transferred to another Circuit Court, preferably Oakland County. “The court’s apparent interest in this litigation may create a risk of actual bias or an appearance of impropriety,” Peters wrote.

The matter is scheduled for a hearing later this summer.