There is a huge legal battle going on in Detroit over the estate of civil rights icon Rosa Parks. There are lawyers, judges, and family fighting to see who controls the estate of “Mother Parks”. Wayne County Probate Judge Freddie Burton Jr. was asked to disqualify himself and in what some have said is unusual he made a decision, which is he will let them know if he will in will continue to preside over the Parks’ estate fight.
Burton told lawyers in a five-minute hearing that he would issue a decision on the disqualification motion in 30-45 days without hearing legal arguments from lawyers in the case. Then, he ended the hearing, leaving lawyers to argue their positions with newspaper reporters.
“It’s outrageous that Judge Burton needs 30-45 days to decide a completely unopposed motion for disqualification,” said attorney Steven G. Cohen, of Farmington Hills, who sued Burton last week on the grounds that he conspired with probate lawyers John Chase Jr. and Melvin Jefferson Jr., allowing them to bankrupt Parks’ estate with unnecessary and excessive attorney fees. “He obviously can’t serve as a presiding judge in a case where he is the defendant.”
Cohen said Burton should have ruled this morning since the other lawyers in the case filed no written objections to his request. “This means the motion is unopposed and should be granted immediately,” Cohen said. Troy attorney Alan May, who represents Chase and Jefferson said Cohen’s accusations are outrageous.
Cohen represents Elaine Steele, Parks’ longtime friend and assistant, and the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute, which Steele founded with Parks. Last week, Cohen sued Burton, Chase and Steele, on the grounds that they conspired to bankrupt Parks’ estate and strip Steele and the institute of their share of Parks’ historically valuable belongings and intellectual property rights.
The controversy is the latest development in a long-running battle that began after Parks’ death in 2005 when her nieces and nephews challenged her estate plan. Though Parks had selected Steele and retired 36th District Court Judge Adam Shakoor to handle her estate, Burton put longtime probate lawyers Chase and Steele in charge.
Instead of marshalling Parks’ assets and sitting on the sideline until Steele, the institute and the relatives settled their differences, Cohen said Chase and Jefferson waded into the fight and started billing the estate for legal fees.
In 2007 Steele, the relatives and the institute signed a confidential agreement giving the institute and Steele 80% of the proceeds from the sale of Parks’ belongings and the royalties from licensing Parks’ name. The relatives were to get the rest.
Instead of putting Steele and Shakoor back in charge of the estate, as the agreement required, Cohen said Burton kept Chase and Jefferson in place. Cohen said Chase and Jefferson fabricated a phony breach of confidentiality dispute that Burton eventually used to strip Steele and the institute of their share of the estate.
Last December, at Cohen’s request, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered Burton to put Steele and Shakoor back in charge of the estate. It also voided the forfeiture order. Cohen now wants Burton off the case and the lawyers to reimburse the estate for the legal fees their received.
May says Chase and Jefferson billed reasonable fees and improved the estate by recognizing the historic value of Parks’ belongings, which a New York City auction house is trying to sell to an institution that can display them. “Shameful.”
This may well be the first time I am at a loss for words as this woman fought for justice while living and her name must continue to fight. And that’s my Thought Provoking Perspective…
As report by David Ashenfelter of the Detroit Free Pree