Fighting for Their Rights: The CYAC Goes Another Round in Court

December 1, 2013

As the three judges on the California Court of Appeal filed into the courtroom, I reflected that they might be surprised to see an audience of 15 young people, many in their teens and some under the age of ten. And after the argument, I reflected that they might also have been surprised at the complete lack of whispering, fidgeting or other behavior that one might expect from the average 14-year-old listening to a fast-paced and sometimes technical appellate legal argument.

If they knew the Community Youth Athletic Center (CYAC) as I do, however, they would not have been surprised—either by the passionate interest of these kids in attending the oral argument or by their stellar comportment.

IJ has been representing the CYAC for six years, fighting National City’s authorization of eminent domain against a supposedly blighted neighborhood, as well as the city’s violations of due process and the California Public Records Act.

During that time, I have developed a respect bordering on awe for what the CYAC manages to accomplish.

The CYAC is a nonprofit boxing program for at-risk youth. Through athletic training and boxing competitions, the kids learn self-discipline, perseverance and confidence. But the CYAC does so much more than that. It provides a safe refuge for hundreds of kids from gang membership and violence. Kids who participate in the CYAC have computers to use to do their homework, and they can receive tutoring as well. For many kids, their experiences with the CYAC are the first time they visit a city other than San Diego, a university or even a restaurant (or, for those 15 kids I saw recently, an appellate court).

Kids who participate in the CYAC stay out of trouble; they get jobs as teachers and law enforcement officers. Some go to college. And for many of them, the CYAC provides an entrance to a stable adult world with options other than public assistance and prison.

The CYAC provides this opportunity to an astounding 850 kids each year, ranging in age from 9 to 17. Because the participants are low-income, the CYAC does not charge—instead, it requires the kids to work hard at the gym and to maintain decent grades in school. For some kids, the CYAC ends up purchasing boxing equipment, bus passes and clothing. The gym is open for boxing, workouts, computer use and tutoring from 2-7 p.m. every weekday. And it does all this without a single full-time employee, on less than $150,000 per year.

With all these responsibilities, and with so little money, the CYAC nevertheless took a stand against eminent domain for private use. And it continued to uphold its principles even after the city decided to cut off public funding, which at the time amounted to about a quarter of the CYAC’s annual revenue. The CYAC teaches its kids to do what is right, and it chose not to back down in the face of hardship. We won at the trial court, and the CYAC (and the Institute for Justice) hope that, on appeal, our case will change the law for the better for all Californians.

After the oral argument, one of the young women who participates in the program asked me if the CYAC would be able to keep its gym. And I was immensely thankful that I could say, resoundingly: YES! You won’t lose the CYAC.

To support the gym, visit them at

Dana Berliner is IJ’s litigation director.

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