Second Round for Boxing Gym vs. Eminent Domain

April 3, 2009

A boxer can be down and not out. So it is with a boxing gym. And so it is with their lawyers here at the Institute for Justice.

As public interest lawyers litigating cutting-edge constitutional cases, we expect hard fights and we expect to lose sometimes. But we really, really hate to lose on technicalities. Last year, based on a technicality, a state court ruled that National City, Calif., could use eminent domain to bulldoze the Community Youth Athletic Center (CYAC), a nonprofit boxing and educational program for at-risk kids, to make way for upscale condos.

When I say the case was decided on a technicality, I mean an error so small it is difficult to even explain it. The process for challenging eminent domain in California is full of short deadlines and finicky procedures. One of these is that when you challenge the authorization of eminent domain, you have to publish a notice in the newspaper about the lawsuit. That newspaper notice must give a date by which other people can join the suit and oppose the city’s plans. The date is counted from the first day the notice appears in the newspaper. In our case, the newspaper changed the day of publication at the last minute, and the corresponding date did not get adjusted. The notice said Friday when it should have said Monday. No one attempted to join the suit on either Friday or Monday, so the error affected absolutely no one. Nevertheless, based on that technicality, the trial court dismissed the CYAC’s entire case. That meant that the CYAC could be taken for private development between now and 2017 without any opportunity to defend itself in court.

If this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. Your right to keep your own home or business should not depend on nonsense like this. Many states, like California, have erected procedural barriers like these to make it as difficult as possible for people to defend their rights, not just from eminent domain, but from all kinds of government abuses.

It took one year, four legal briefs and an oral argument at the Court of Appeal, but we finally won. The CYAC and IJ are now back in the fight and ready for our next round in court. The appellate court ruled that there was “good cause” for the mistaken date. The court said we can republish the notice and start again. That is an enormous relief to us, to the CYAC and to the hundreds of kids they serve. It is also good news for everyone else in California. This ruling means that courts will allow people to correct minor technical errors instead of just ruling that the government can take their land. So even though we certainly did not start out the case to argue about picayune procedural points, this ruling benefits not just the CYAC, but other people fighting eminent domain in California.

Dana Berliner is an IJ senior attorney.

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