Judge Allows Lawsuit Over Obama Library to Proceed

The Obama Foundation released these plans in 2017 for the proposed Obama Presidential Center with a museum, rear, in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side. This view looks from the south with a public plaza that extends into the landscape. Odds still favor the eventual construction of Barack Obama’s $500 million presidential museum and library in a park along Chicago’s lakeshore. (Obama Foundation via AP, File)

CHICAGO (CN) – A federal judge ruled Tuesday that a lawsuit over the construction of former President Barack Obama’s presidential library in a Chicago park will proceed, denying in part a city attorneys’ motion to dismiss the suit.

U.S. District Judge John Blakey’s 21-page order states that it “merely clears away portions of the case that do not belong,” and “assures all involved that it will address what is left of the matter upon the dispositive motions to be filed at the close of discovery.”

The order continues that “If dispositive motions are granted in full, the case will end; and if they are denied, the parties will receive a short trial date.”

The dispute over the Obama Presidential Center, or OPC, arises out of the effort made by the city and Chicago Park District to transfer relevant land in Jackson Park on the city’s South Side to The Obama Foundation in order to build and operate the library. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel issued an ordinance authorizing the transfer in January 2015.

The lawsuit challenging plans for the center, brought by parks advocacy group Protect Our Parks and area taxpayers, was filed three years later in May 2018.

According to Judge Blakey’s order, that lawsuit sought to “enjoin an alleged ‘contrived collaboration’ among Defendants to construct the OPC on a specific site within Jackson Park.” The plaintiffs’ claims of injury included violation of due process, First Amendment violations and breaches of state laws, including those regarding the public trust.

The plaintiffs’ complaint called the transfer an “illegal land grab,” that seeks to gift public land to a private entity.

Judge Blakey’s opinion began with the plaintiffs’ due process claim, which is based upon aesthetic and environmental harm as well as interest the plaintiffs hold in Jackson Park as state taxpayers, including an interpretation of the defendants’ actions as an “unlawful taking” of Jackson Park in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

The order tosses the aesthetic and environmental harm claim, finding that the allegations “fail to provide a sufficient basis to establish standing for any aesthetic or environmental harm,” going further to say that Protect Our Parks’ theory fails “because the amended complaint lacks any allegation that its members use, visit, or otherwise enjoy Jackson Park in any manner.”

Judge Blakey went on to state that the plaintiffs “have established Article III standing as to their Due Process claim” and did not throw it out.

In that claim, the plaintiffs state that the center places Jackson Park in imminent danger of alteration, which would deprive them of their rights under the public trust doctrine without procedural due process.

Judge Blakey, however, took issue with the plaintiffs’ First Amendment claims.

The plaintiffs allege that the proceeds from their municipal tax dollars will fund political speech with which they disagree, a claim which Judge Blakey’s order states relies upon “a series of prospective events.”

Off the bat, Judge Blakey dismissed that claim with regard to Charlotte Adelman, one of the taxpayers among the plaintiffs who lives in nearby Wilmette.

“As such,” the order says, “she will not pay any sort of municipal tax in support of the OPC,” and therefore cannot establish Article III standing.

Judge Blakey’s order called the rest of the First Amendment claim “unripe,” determining that it “rests upon multiple levels of wild factual speculation.”  

The order finds that the plaintiffs’ speculation about the city construing its use agreement to levy new taxes does not offer any indication that such a tax is possible, seeing as how “the Use Agreement between the City and Foundation expressly prohibits the Park District of enacting an annual tax to support the OPC.”

As for the plaintiffs’ claim of partisan political activity, the order states that “This Court declines Plaintiffs’ invitation to predict the future” after the plaintiffs asked Judge Blakey to, “find that President Obama, through the Foundation and the OPC, will, at some undefined time and in an undefined manner, disregard both the Use Agreement and applicable tax law by engaging in partisan political activities at the OPC.”

The case remains set for a management conference on the morning of Feb. 27, at which point further discovery and briefing schedules will be set.

If the OPC continues as planned, the 20-acre development would be built seven miles south of downtown Chicago near low-income neighborhoods where Obama once worked as a community organizer and blocks from the University of Chicago where Obama was a law professor.

Herb Caplan, president of Protect Our Parks, said in a statement that the ruling “is an important step forward in the Jackson Park lawsuit.”

“Protect Our Parks is hopeful the city and the Obama Foundation will now consider the various superior locations in underserved south side neighborhoods which are available for the OPC but have never been considered – and save historic landmarked Jackson Park from being desecrated by the 235 foot (20 story) high Obama Center tower in the pristine park,” Caplan said. (Parentheses in original.)

The city of Chicago and its legal representation could not be reached for comment after business hours Tuesday.

%d bloggers like this: