Federal Judge allows OPC lawsuit to proceed under public trust doctrine but rejects arguments, standing on other grounds

Rendering courtesy of the Obama Foundation

By AARON GETTINGER
Staff Writer Federal

Federal Judge John Robert Blakey ruled that the plaintiffs in Protect Our Parks v. Chicago Park District have standing, under the public trust doctrine, to sue to block the construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park, but he rejected plaintiffs’ standing in two other areas.

The defendants — the Chicago Park District and city — had filed motions asking the judge to dismiss the lawsuit, but Blakey’s ruling means the lawsuit will proceed.

The public trust doctrine defines the “fractional, beneficial” relationship Illinoisans have with public parkland. Protect Our Parks’ argument that the OPC construction would deprive or diminish that ownership must be answered through a court decision because of due process, Blakey said. He did not issue a judgment on that due process claim.

The judge did reject the plaintiffs’ standing on the basis of an aesthetic and environmental harm. Specifically, he said the individual plaintiffs “fail to allege that they use, visit or enjoy Jackson Park in any way; and that the alleged aesthetic and environmental harm will affect them personally.”

The plaintiffs argued that their city tax dollars will go towards subsidizing the messaging of a prominent Democrat’s presidential center and museum, which they called a free speech violation. Blakey rejected this, however, saying the Chicago plaintiffs’ First Amendment standing claim “rests upon multiple levels of wild factual speculation,” agreeing with the defendants that the government will not fund the OPC’s construction or upkeep and that the Obama Foundation is to be strictly limited in its actions by their use agreement with the city.

Blakey also rejected Wilmette, Illinois, plaintiff Charlotte Adelman’s First Amendment standing regarding the supposed free speech issue because she does not pay Chicago taxes.

Furthermore, he rejected the other plaintiffs’ First Amendment standing because their “claim rests upon multiple levels of wild factual speculation,” agreeing with the defendants that the government will not fund the OPC’s construction or upkeep and that the Obama Foundation is to be strictly limited in its actions by their use agreement with the city government.

As he has said previously in court, Blakey conveyed a desire to move the case forward with due speed. He set a case management conference at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse on Feb. 27 at 10:30 a.m., and he said he would rule on any discovery disputes there.

Speaking from the bench, Blakey has expressed frustration about the amount of time discovery has taken. In his order, he set a 45-day deadline for discovery to conclude and six weeks for the final briefing and resolution of dispositive motions.

An Obama Foundation spokesperson reiterated the organization’s position that the lawsuit is without merit: “We are confident that our plan for the Obama Presidential Center is consistent with Chicago’s rich tradition of locating world-class museums in its parks, and we look forward to developing a lasting cultural institution on the South Side.”

Ed Siskel, the city’s corporation counsel, said the defendants “are pleased that the court dismissed some of the claims and made clear that the proceedings will move forward expeditiously.” Mark Roth, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said Blakey “entered a very detailed and considered ruling.”

“The vast majority of the claims remain,” Roth said, “and we will aggressively litigate those claims.”

In a statement, Southside Neighbors for Hope, an organization that supports building the OPC in Jackson Park, expressed disappointment that the lawsuit had not been fully dismissed, calling it a waste of taxpayers’ money and a delaying tactic that obstructs construction jobs, the OPC’s programming and the long-term economic investment.

“Most concerning is that, if this lawsuit prevails, the direct benefit that the OPC brings to the communities of Woodlawn, South Shore and Hyde Park will be eliminated,” the statement read.

a.gettinger@hpherald.com