Judge expected to decide by next week whether to toss Obama Center lawsuit

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Former President Barack Obama points out features of the proposed Obama Presidential Center in May. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

A federal judge said he will decide by early next week whether to toss a lawsuit challenging plans to build the Obama Presidential Center in historic Jackson Park.

Even if he doesn’t, he clearly plans to speed it toward a resolution.

The advocacy group Protect Our Parks filed the lawsuit last May, alleging that the city hatched a plan to gift part of Jackson Park to the Obama Foundation “in a classic Chicago political way, known as a short con shell game,” meant to “legitimize an illegal land grab.”

But in court Thursday, lawyers for City Hall and the Chicago Park District questioned whether the plaintiffs even had standing to file their lawsuit. Additional plaintiffs named in the complaint include Charlotte Adelman, of Wilmette, and Maria Valencia and Jeremiah Jurevis, of Chicago.

Their lawyers say the Illinois legislature declared Jackson Park “free to all persons forever” and therefore held “in public trust for the benefit of the citizens of the City of Chicago and State of Illinois.” They said that gives all Illinois residents a stake in what happens there.

They’ve also pointed to the potential environmental damage of what they called “pristine park land.” Finally, they said their First Amendment rights would be violated if their tax money is used to help fund the construction of a building used to promote former President Barack Obama’s political interests.

City lawyers argued that, while public trust doctrine may give people the right to sue in state court, that doesn’t carry over into federal court. They said concerns about the environment must be specific — more than just “general dismay.” And they said complaints about the political use of the Obama Center are “doubly speculative,” because they assume the center would be used to promote a political agenda in violation of federal law and an agreement with the city.

U.S. District Judge John Blakey heard those arguments Thursday and asked for more information about the membership of Protect Our Parks. Then he told the lawyers he planned to rule on a motion to dismiss by Tuesday.

The judge also criticized both sides for the slow pace at which evidence has been exchanged in the case. He told them he wanted to move things along, assuming he doesn’t decide to throw it out completely.

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