Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Downtown Columbia meets Rush Limbaugh's cousin the judge

by Mike Martin for the Columbia Business Times

Pity the poor soul who has to appear in front of federal judge Stephen Limbaugh, Jr. to argue some basic, constitutional liberty.

An unlikely entrant into a months-long, behind-the-scenes battle to secure downtown land for a new State Historical Society of Missouri museum, Limbaugh -- who sits on the federal bench for the Eastern District of Missouri -- dispensed legal opinions with the punch of a cattle prod while dispensing with private property rights in e-mails to fellow historical society trustees and Columbia city officials.

The group aggressively sought eminent domain authority to acquire property along Fifth and Elm streets from Bengals Grill owners Jack and Julie Rader, and a partnership that includes Adam Dushoff and the proprietors of Addison’s restaurant. Columbia resident Traci Wilson-Kleekamp requested the e-mails and related records under the Freedom of Information Act and then provided them to the local media.

“Where are the appraisals?????!!!!! We can’t do anything without them.”

That’s Justice Limbaugh yelling--in Internet terms--at historical society director Gary Kremer and Columbia Daily Tribune publisher Hank Waters, a fellow historical society vice president. “The up side is that the owners will have to vacate the property forthwith, and we can begin the site prep immediately.”

That’s Judge Limbaugh -- a former Missouri Supreme Court chief justice -- explaining the fast-acting benefits of eminent domain on March 11, 2009, three months into the controversial campaign.

“…the damages calculation will surely come in lower than what the owners are holding us up for now.”

That’s Justice Limbaugh, characterizing Dushoff and the Raders as either greedy or thieves.
“Sellers are posturing big time, threatening all manners of obfuscation.”

“I hear you. So should we go ahead with contracts or wait on appraisal? My view is we need the appraisals to do the contract, and if we use ED, it helps our case.”

That’s Justice Limbaugh, but on the “cc” line now, listening in on another March 11 conversation between Waters and Otto Maly, a commercial realtor. Notice how Waters equates guarding property rights with “posturing” and “obfuscation.” Notice how Maly, representing City Hall, reduces eminent domain -- “ED,” one of the most potent of all government powers -- to little more than a negotiating tool.

Notice how Judge Limbaugh raises no objections.

Shortly after the landmark Kelo v. City of New London, Connecticut U.S. Supreme Court case, which in 2005 expanded eminent domain’s role in redeveloping blighted areas, Stephen Limbaugh’s cousin -- conservative icon Rush Limbaugh -- spoke out on his radio show.

“There’s an added element to it, and that is the importance -- maybe even of more importance than the right to free speech -- of the right to own property in a free country,” Rush said. “Without the right to own property, even with the right of free speech, you don’t have a free country -- not when the government can come in and take whatever they want whenever they want it, not pay you anything for it or very little for it, and give it to somebody else or use it themselves.”

Last June, also on his radio show, Rush praised his cousin after the U.S. Senate confirmed him. “We’re all very proud of my cousin Steve,” Rush told listeners. “We’re just ecstatically proud.”
But in Columbia, the interloping Cape Girardeau-based judge has done little to merit the same praise. Despite the widely publicized, community-wide condemnation that ensued after the historical society’s plans became public in mid-December -- forcing city officials to back-pedal and eventually kill the scheme -- Limbaugh’s emails offer no evidence that the controversy even gave him pause.

They offer no evidence that he tried to engage the public, no evidence that he was guarding Fifth Amendment due process rights, no evidence that he gave a whit about government sunshine.
Instead, Limbaugh pushed City Hall toward scary new powers and a quadrupling of its already questionable $250,000 taxpayer-funded commitment to the new museum.

“It may be that the state will throw in some site acquisition money, especially after the City has upped its contribution to $1 million,” Limbaugh emailed his group, further badgering them.

“We might want to get advice from the city attorney, through Bill Watkins, about the time needed to condemn these properties, assuming we will do everything possible to expedite the process,” Limbaugh wrote Hank Waters. “As you know, the big tie-up on eminent domain is the amount of damages, but once a court makes an initial ruling that the property is being acquired for a governmental purpose -- which should not take too long at all -- then we can take possession and have a trial (if necessary) on the amount of damages later.”

A Model Code of Judicial Conduct divided into five "canons" governs the nation’s judges. In part, Canon Four reads, “A judge shall conduct all of the judge’s extra-judicial activities so that they do not cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially as a judge.”

If I had an eminent domain case in front of Justice Limbaugh, would I be justified in having reasonable doubt about his capacity to act impartially, given his extra-judicial activities in our town?

Even if you’re not an attorney, I think you know the answer.

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