Don’t Believe It!

When witnesses are called to testify, they have to swear to tell not just the truth, but the whole truth. We do that because, to state the obvious, the withholding of selected parts of a story can mislead the audience every bit as much as outright lying. But reporters don’t have to worry about that. As long as they aren’t being deliberately defamatory, they can write anything they want, no matter how tendentious and selective their presentation. Case in point, the December 3rd, article in the Los Angeles Daily Journal, by Rebecca Beyer, entitled City Ordered to Pay for Turning Zoned Area Into a “Bathtub”, reporting U.S. District Court’s $36.87 million award against the city of Half Moon Bay for its uncompensated taking of a privately-owned 24.7-acre parcel of land. The city first flooded it and then had the chutzpa to point to its “wetland” condition as a pretext for denying its owner the right to develop it for a use expressly permitted by its long-standing zoning.  That’s the case we blogged about in the preceding post.

Beyer’s story gives prominent space to the assertion of John D. Echeverria, a leading national “police power hawk,” who just plumb doesn’t like the modern application of the Just Compenation Clause of the Constitution. Echeverria is quoted as saying that the ruling of Chief U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker who presided over this case is “an egregious example of an activist federal judge reaching out to decide a case that properly belongs in state court.” “Reaching out?” My goodness. Have case loads in federal court fallen so low that federal judges have nothing better to do than to run around, reaching out and grabbing state court cases?  That sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? Could that really happen? Not really.

What neither Beyer nor Echeverria tells us is that in fact, the case was filed in state court, as required by the Supreme Court in its Williamson County decision (473 U.S. 172). So you’d think that this should have satisfied the city. Right? Guess again. After the case was duly filed in state court as required by Wiliamson County, the city removed it to federal court, arguing that doing so was its choice, being that since a constitutional issue was involved, it was a proper case for federal court. See City of Chicago v. International College of Surgeons, 522 U.S. 156 (1997). 

So the case wound up in federal court because the city transferred it there. The case was then processed over a period of two years, including fortysomething depositions, hiring expert witnesses, and all the other preparatory litigational big-case foofaraw that consumed millions. Then the case went to trial that lasted two weeks (nine court days), with 39 witnesses, including seven experts, plus 300 exhibits. All that without a peep from the city about being in the wrong court. It was only after the evidence was in and it made clear that the city had done wrong, that it was suddenly born again. It was only after the trial was over that the city filed a post-trial brief asserting for the first time that the case shouldn’t be in federal court, and that — are you ready? — it should have been tried in state court. As far as we know the city never said “Oops,” or “Sorry about that,” or offered to reimburse the court and parties for the wasted time, effort and expenses it inflicted on them. By our lights Chief Judge Walker displayed the patience of a saint for not sanctioning these guys. If it had been us — God forbid! — we’d have given serious consideration to reviving the medieval judicial custom of ordering that the miscreants’ hands be chopped off and nailed to the court house door as a warning to others. But what do we know?

Anyway, Beyer’s Daily Journal story glosses over all this, and by highlighting Echeverria’s “reaching out” asserion leaves its readers with a false impression of what actually transpired. No, Chief Judge Walker did not “reach out.” The city brought him this case on a silver platter, demanding justice, and justice is exactly what it got. Like the proverb says, be careful what you ask for because you may just get it.

Update. We are indebted to Aaron Kinney who reminds us in his column that Half Moon Bay also had the chutzpa to charge the land owner a million dollars for sewers for his development, and then told him that he could not develop. For Kinney’s detailed description of the facts of this case and of Chief Judge Walker’s opinion go  here. The opinion is now available on Westlaw — 2007 WL 4276385 (N.D. Cal.).