Lawsuit over Obama center moves forward, but judge eyes speedy end to case

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“Wow! Look at that! Outstanding!” former President Barack Obama exclaimed about the augmented reality excursion into the world of the planned Obama Presidential Center. | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times

The legal battle over the planned Obama Presidential Center in historic Jackson Park could be headed toward a speedy conclusion despite a federal judge’s decision Tuesday not to entirely toss the case.

U.S. District Judge John Blakey ruled that a lawsuit targeting the museum plan could move forward and found, in a 21-page opinion, that the plaintiffs who brought it generally had legal standing.

Still, the judge made clear at the top of his order that it “does not address the true facts of this case.” He also said he plans to resolve the case — with or without trial — in short order.

The lawsuit filed by the advocacy group Protect Our Parks directly challenges plans to build the Obama center on 19.3 acres carved out of Jackson Park. But Tuesday’s ruling revolved only around the legal technicality of whether the group and three individual plaintiffs had standing to file the lawsuit. The complaint names City Hall and the Chicago Park District as defendants.

“The Obama Presidential Center is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for all of Chicago. … We are pleased that the court dismissed some of the claims and made clear that the proceedings will move forward expeditiously,” Chicago Corporation Counsel Ed Siskel said.

Though Blakey largely found that the lawsuit could move forward, he did strike down a few aspects of it. The plaintiffs had argued 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.

The judge said that claim “rests upon multiple levels of wild factual speculation,” noting that political activity would violate a use agreement with the city — and federal law.

“Plaintiffs ask this court to find that President Obama . . . 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 (Obama Presidential Center),” Blakey wrote. “This court declines plaintiffs’ invitation to predict the future.”

The judge also found little merit in a claim that the plaintiffs would suffer because of aesthetic and environmental harm to the park. Blakey said the group’s claim fails “because the amended complaint lacks any allegation that its members use, visit, or otherwise enjoy Jackson Park in any manner.”

Lawyers are due back in Blakey’s courtroom on Feb. 27, one day after Chicago residents vote for a new mayor.

The judge said he will use that hearing to resolve disputes over evidence and set a brief schedule for the rest of the case. If necessary, the judge said he plans to eventually set a “short trial date.”

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