No one got much judicial love at the Valentine’s Day hearing on the lawsuit aimed at keeping the Obama Presidential Center out of Jackson Park.
The only message clearly sent by Federal District Court judge John Robert Blakey as he heard arguments on a motion to dismiss the suit was that he’s not going to sit around for a bunch of prolonged foreplay. Blakey does not want Protect Our Parks v. Chicago Park District, filed last May, to be one of those legal battles that drags on until one party or the other loses their passion for whatever’s at issue and gives up—as happened after the Lucas Museum’s parkland site was challenged in court by Friends of the Parks and the moviemaker fell out of love with Chicago.
“This case is lingering,” the judge complained, “and it’s the fault of both sides.” He said he’d announce his decision on the city’s effort to get the suit tossed within a week.
But before then, he wanted something clarified: Is POP—which no one has heard much from since it won a lawsuit to keep the Latin School from turning part of Lincoln Park into a soccer field for its own use a decade ago—even a thing?
“Is there actually a membership?” the judge asked. “Real human beings? Taxpayers?”
He gave POP one day to provide him with evidence that it’s not just a bunch of robots or zombies or, say, a shell organization consisting of one irate Chicagoan and a friend from the suburbs. POP’s attorneys, Mark D. Roth and mayoral candidate Bob Fioretti, said they would.
And there’s another question the judge wanted answered: Has that soggy Jackson Park land that the Obama Foundation wants to build on ever been underwater? Not just temporarily flooded, like so many Chicago basements, but as a part of Lake Michigan?
Why does this matter? Because formerly submerged land has special protections, originally intended to preserve the navigability of waterways. POP argues that the Illinois Supreme Court expanded those protections to cover other public land, but nevertheless wants the authenticity of the city’s vintage maps checked.
Judge Blakey, lamenting that he’s the only one concerned about moving things along, had the POP lawyers go through the lengthy list of information they’re still seeking from the city. It ranged from depositions to soil testing, and included documents they say could help them prove their claim that a 2016 amendment to the Park District Aquarium and Museum Act, which inserted the words “presidential libraries, centers, and museums” into the part of the act that stipulates what can be built in public parks, wasn’t just a theoretical afterthought, but is in fact illegal “special legislation” enacted for the benefit of one very specific presidential center.
After the hearing, POP president Herbert Caplan restated the crux of the case against the city and the Park District: “We cite a specific statute which limits the right of the Park District to transfer public parkland to a private party for a private use. What the mayor has done is try to work out this scam to cover up the fact that they’re not following the statute. He’s doing it by an elaborate land-flipping scheme.”
A spokesperson for the city declined to comment on pending litigation, but in its motion for dismissal the city claims that POP lacks legal standing to bring this suit and that it doesn’t belong in federal court.
On Tuesday, Blakey issued a decision that keeps the case alive. While granting parts of the city’s motion to dismiss, including a First Amendment claim that he wrote “rests upon multiple levels of wild factual speculation,” the judge found that Protect Our Parks and its coplaintiffs do have standing to bring their case charging violation of due process in the transfer of public trust land to the Obama Foundation. Citing the lawsuit against the Lucas Museum (Friends of the Parks v. Chicago Park District), Blakey wrote that if the public trust doctrine “is to have any meaning or vitality at all, the members of the public, at least taxpayers who are the beneficiaries of that trust, must have the right and standing to enforce it.”
Speaking for the city, corporation counsel Ed Siskel writes in an e-mail, “We are pleased that the court dismissed some of the claims and made clear that the proceedings will move forward expeditiously.”
And at Protect Our Parks, “it feels like we’re over a hump,” Caplan said. “All we’re seeking is that the Obama Foundation relocate the center out of the public park into any other space that they might want. There are a lot of available spots on the south side that would serve their purposes better than Jackson Park would.”
The next court date in this case, which is likely headed for a judicial ruling on the evidence rather than a full trial, will be Wednesday, February 27. v