Culture, Legal

The Case Grinds Exceedingly Fine, And Slow

In our Village, we are seeing the end game take place between the Church and Libertyville about the disposition of a piece of Church property designated for a housing development.  Many of us feel it could have been settled with some discussion, but that’s not what’s happening.  As the saying goes, “See you in Court.”

Today was the fifth session of the Catholic Bishop of Chicago vs the Village of Libertyville case # 17MR00001013, Lake County 19th Circuit Court. Witnessing the event is a little like church, in that strange things happen up at the front, and the seats are bone hard down at the back.

Early on day 1, we watched as the opposing attorneys pushed sheaves of papers at each other, forcing the opening of massively thick three-ring binders to extract pages and replace them with others. Through it all, the judge kept a steady, grave face as he too had to change out documents in his own set of binders.  Keeping right up, he referenced exhibit numbers with the speed of a vigorous game of Whackamoley as the attorneys swapped pages before him.

After some additional scuffling about admissibility of late-arriving evidence, the attorneys finally got down to their opening statements.  For the Church, it was a clear cut case of capricious, arbitrary decision-making by the Village that infringed upon their constitutional rights.  They referenced the LaSalle Factors, which were a set of standards established by the Illinois Supreme court years ago about the rights of property owners.  At the base of it, the Church believes the LaSalle factors support them completely.  The Village decision caused the Church hardship.

For the Village, the argument throws the LaSalle Factors back at the Church.  The hardship was self-made.  Years ago, when they knew they would develop the land on Butterfield Road, they should have created a safe right of way, and they didn’t do it.

What is this debate all about?  Traffic safety, and the need for a set of lights at Lake and Butterfield.  Without those lights, and the connected access to the proposed development, it was a non-starter for the Village, which voted the project down.   For four days, the Church presented hundreds of documents testifying to the safety of the Butterfield access, and to the development process, supported by the consultants and officials who wrote them.

Now after five days and one sumptuous, turkey-laden Thanksgiving-week-long hiatus, plus a full-court snowstorm to kick things up a notch, the attorneys have returned to continue the debate before the ever-game judge.   The Village will now present the defense of their decision, again referencing their own bushel of documents testifying to the development process and to the non-safety of the access.

You may think it a simple case to sort out a simple highway safety issue, but then why would we need lawyers?

It was striking to see that there were only two attorneys for each side, but the real measure of intensity is in the volumes of paper presented.  The Church team brings in 13 bankers boxes of files every morning and spreads them across two rows of court benches.  They have two luggage carts.  There is a law clerk who is constantly running into the court bleachers to fetch another file folder.  The Village also has two luggage carts, but only about 3 boxes of files.  You can see who has the larger budget for photocopying.

The chatter in the room is between the judge and the two attorneys, while the witness gets to offer yes and no testimony.  Faithfully, diligently, the court reporter is forever typing her keys to create a transcript of thousands of lines of give and take.  It’s like recording the laying of a million bricks in an infinite wall of legalese.

Through it all, the judge is playing referee on the admissibility of every utterance.  He is patient, but not sympathetic with either side particularly.  His is not an easy task.   He is taking in mountains of detail about a subject he had no interest in, yet there he is, stuck in the middle of it.  The halting pace is interrupted by objections about admissibility, form, substance, relevance, foundation.

For instance,

Attorney 1: “Did a camel pass through the eye of a needle?”

Attorney 2: “Objection.  Foundation.”

Attorney 1: “Camel hair coats are sewn with #8 needles.  Would you agree?”

Witness: “Yes.”

Attorney 1: “Speaking of needles, did you see that camel?”

When the two sides finally close down this week, then the judge will take his numerous binders, thousands of pages, gratuitously thrust upon him, packed in his own luggage rack, and he will read everything again, and come back with a decision.

It makes me think of a parent being charged with the onerous duty to sort out a mess the kids made.

After watching these two sessions, and the grindingly slow development of the respective arguments, my advice to anyone who is at odds with another person: go figure it out.  Talk.  Find a way to avoid court.  I think the judge would agree.

This case will finish around Thursday this week.

December 1: The case has been continued to Friday, December 7, upon which day we will hear closing arguments.

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