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Emanuel tries legal end-run to save Lucas Museum

A rendering of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. | Distributed by the Associated Press

With Los Angeles and San Francisco breathing down Chicago’s neck, Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday made one last stab at keeping movie mogul George Lucas’ museum in Chicago: an end-run around a federal judge that experts called a legal long-shot.

Emanuel asked the federal appeals court to issue a writ of mandamus — ordering U.S. District Judge John Darrah to dismiss a Friends of the Parks lawsuit that Darrah kept alive. The lawsuit challenges the mayor’s original plan to give Lucas 17 acres of lakefront land near Soldier Field.

Darrah has already rejected the city’s motion to dismiss while sympathizing with Friends of the Park’s central argument that a 99-year lease “effectively surrenders control” of prime lakefront property to a museum that is “not for the benefit of the public,” but would “promote private and/or commercial interests.”

But the federal judge has not heard all the evidence in the case. Nevertheless, Emanuel is going over Darrah’s head and asking the federal appeals court to order the judge to reverse himself.

Legal experts predicted that the extraordinary maneuver would fall flat, in part, because Darrah has not yet issued a final ruling.

“There’s generally no appeal as a right when the court denies a motion . . . We don’t want to clog the appellate court with a series of disappointed parties in the middle of a lawsuit. You have to, for lack of a better term, wait your turn,” said Mary Nagel, an assistant professor at the John Marshall Law School specializing in civil procedure.

“This wasn’t something done arbitrarily. Judge Darrah received a lot of information and rendered a very lengthy and detailed decision as to why the court denied the motion. Other courts don’t want to step on the toes of another judge. If the court says, `We’re going to . . . order the judge to do this,’ it’s going to be an unspoken call to arms for everybody disappointed with a judge’s ruling to seek a writ of mandamus from the court of appeals.”

Even the threat that Lucas will take his $1 billion investment to Los Angeles or San Francisco is unlikely to be enough to secure the writ of mandamus, Nagel said.

“Their claim is they’re going to lose this museum. Well, what other cities have they spoken to? How close are they to inking a deal with another city? If all they’ve said is, `We’re going to look someplace else,’ I don’t see the immediacy and neither will the court,” Nagel said.

Nadav Shoked, an associate professor at Northwestern Law School, agreed with Emanuel that Darrah made a “series of mistakes” in his preliminary rulings. Shoked argued that Friends of the Parks had “no federal claim” and “no basis to argue” that the city and park district “are not allowed to build on that land” near Soldier Field.

But Shoked nevertheless predicted that the city’s petition would be denied.

“What the city is asking the 7th Circuit to say here is not just that the judge is wrong, but also that he’s usurping powers that do not belong to him. I do not think that’s going to happen,” Shoked said.

“There’s no doubt in my mind the city would win on appeal. The judge’s mistakes are so obvious that your average first-year law student in a reputable law school can notice them. But it’s going to be very tough for the court to say, `He’s completely out of line. He doesn’t have the power to do what he’s doing.’”

In their petition, city attorneys acknowledged that “the erroneous denial of a motion to dismiss is ordinarily insufficient to warrant mandamus relief.” But they argued that the battle over the Lucas Museum is “no ordinary case.”

“This case involves a public project of enormous consequence to the city and its residents, and — absent mandamus relief — the district court’s denial of the motions to dismiss will kill the project. Only swift vindication of defendants’ clear and unequivocal right to dismissal will allow them to retain the museum,” the motion states.

A document attached to the city’s petition quotes the vice president of the Lucas Museum as saying the museum will “abandon its plans to locate in Chicago unless this legal uncertainty is promptly resolved.”

If the legal maneuver fails and Lucas takes his prize to another city, Emanuel will have spent some of his diminished political capital on a failed project that had critics once again questioning his priorities.

But the mayor bristled at the notion that he has the most to lose.

“I’m gonna be fine. My health is okay. My kids still loved me — as of this morning at least. I didn’t do this because I thought this was in my political benefit. I thought this was great for Chicago’s future,” Emanuel said.

Contributing: Jon Seidel

Chicago filing in Lucas Museum case

Exhibits to filing