Hopes for timely groundbreaking for the “Obama Presidential Center” in Chicago suffered a blow yesterday in a federal courtroom.  A federal judge appointed to the bench by Barack Obama gave the go-ahead for a lawsuit that will delay, and quite possibly end, the plan to build and operate the monument as a center for extolling the sheer wonderfulness of Barack and Michelle Obama.  The lawsuit, brought by Protect Our Parks, challenges the legality of handing over 20 acres of irreplaceable lakefront park land for 99 years to a private interest group, the Obama Foundation, which enjoys tax deductibility for donations to it, but which is unaccountable to any elected representatives of the people.

Courtesy of the Obama Foundation

Michael Tarm of the AP lays out the basic facts of the news:

U.S. District Judge John Robert Blakey heard arguments last week on the city’s motion to dismiss the suit and was largely focused on whether the group had standing to sue.

The granting of standing to the plaintiffs is critical, for that was probably the best hope of the Obamas to quash the lawsuit right away

In its 2018 suit, Protect Our Parks accused the city of illegally transferring parkland to a private entity, The Obama Foundation, effectively “gifting” prized land to a Chicago favorite son. The group said city officials manipulated the approval process and tinkered with legislation to skirt long-standing laws designed to ensure residents have unobstructed access to lakeside parks.

“Defendants have chosen to deal with it in a classic Chicago political way … to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab,” the lawsuit says.

To make the park available for the project, the Chicago Park District first sold the land to the city for $1. Illinois legislators amended the state’s Illinois Aquarium and Museum Act to include presidential libraries as an exception to the no-development rules if there’s a compelling public interest. The Chicago City Council approved the project by a 47-to-1 vote last May.

The Obama Foundation, a private nonprofit, would pay $10 to the city for use of the parkland for 99 years, cover the costs of building the complex and be responsible for covering operating costs for 99 years. Once built, the Obama Presidential Center’s physical structures would be transferred to the city for free, meaning the city would formally own the center but not control what happens there.

This report obscures the critical factor: The state legislation allowed the construction of “presidential libraries,” which are owned by US taxpayers and run by the National Archives in the public interest. The Obama Foundation switched the planned facility to a purely private entity, designed, built, and operated for its own purposes – my take is that it is a monument to Obama (curiously, shaped like a cenotaph) and a center for political organizing. Not a single book or government document would be housed there. It would be run at whim of the Obama Foundation, glorifying the man whom few would ever call modest.

The term for this sort of maneuver is “bait and switch” and I think it is a very solid legal claim. The legislation do not authorize a private monument.

Judge Blakey was appointed to the US District Court for Northern Illinois in 2014 by President Obama. His is twice a graduate of Notre Dame University, with undergraduate and law diplomas from the school.

Judge Blakely also threw out what I regard as a far-fetched argument that the First Amendment rights of the plaintiffs would be violated because the facility would be used for political speech with which they might disagree.

One claim Blakey tossed Tuesday was that taxpayers’ First Amendment rights would be infringed upon because tax money would be spent to reconfigure roads and traffic. The suit argued that taxpayers would thus subsidize any partisan political activity by Obama at the center.

The immediate consequence of the ruling is the start of discovery, as the Washington Examiner explains:

The judge’s ruling means the hearing determining the parameters for discovery in the case will take place Feb. 27. Because discovery may take months, the judge’s decision will delay construction on the center even if it is later approved.

I expect fireworks at the hearing next week. If I were the plaintiffs’s counsel, I would demand discovery of a huge range of communications of the Obama Foundation and the Obamas themselves with any political figures in Chicago and the State of Illinois.  Given that the city and state are strongholds of the Democrats and notorious for corruption, the possibility of embarrassing emails or letters, and memoranda of conversations, is not negligible. In that environment, people may feel safe from hostile scrutiny.

Incidentally, the Proect Our Parks is vehement that they do not oppose construction of a monument elsewhere, and even point to a plot of vacant land on the Southside of Chicago that is not park land. But it is not lakefront property, so is much less prestigious and visible. Less personal glory for Obama. But if part of the aim of the facility is to help “urban youth,” it would be located in the midst of a community with many, many more minority young people than live in and around Jackson Park.

Hat tip: Peter von Buol