Legal Ethics

Institute Claims Rosa Parks' Estate Drained by Fees for Lawyers Who Also Got Licensing Rights


An institute co-founded by Rosa Parks alleges in a Michigan Supreme Court filing that two appointed lawyers who were “court cronies” were rewarded too well for their work on the estate.

The biting document (PDF), seeking leave to appeal, claims the lawyers were paid $243,000 in legal fees, nearly two-thirds the cash value of the estate, the Detroit Free Press reports. When it became clear the fees would exceed the estate’s value, the filing says, the lawyers were then awarded Parks’ memorabilia collection and rights to license her name.

The document was filed by lawyer Steven Cohen on behalf of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, and on behalf of Elaine Steele, the woman who founded the group with Parks, the story says. Parks had given her memorabilia and rights to the institute, the court petition says, but the lawyers claimed it should be forfeited to them because the institute violated a confidential settlement agreement between Steele and Parks’ nieces and nephews.

The document labels the lawyers, John Chase Jr. and Melvin Jefferson Jr., as “court cronies” who “used their court appointment to create make-work projects.” It accused the judge who appointed them, Freddie Burton Jr. of Wayne County, of operating his courtroom “as a virtual star chamber.” Court hearings were conducted behind locked doors on the pretext of protecting confidential information, the filing says, and rulings were issued without admitting evidence or hearing witnesses.

The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed Burton’s forfeiture orders “without the slightest concern for fundamental fairness or due process,” the petition says.

“Since Mrs. Parks’ death in 2005,” the document says, “the court system of her adopted city has embarked on a course to destroy her legacy, bankrupt her institute, shred her estate plan and steal her very name.”

Burton told the Free Press he can’t comment because of the pending litigation. “It’s a very controversial case,” he said. The lawyers did not respond to the newspaper’s request for comment.

The Free Press labels the case an “estate brawl” that included allegations Steele had tricked Parks into signing a will that took away decision-making and profits from her nieces and nephews. A lawyer for the relatives praised the work of Chase and Jefferson and told the publication Judge Burton has been fair. The Court of Appeals found the lawyers had helped preserve estate assets by avoiding a costly probate trial. The opinion also credited the lawyers for recognizing the value of the memorabilia.

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