Pasadena Republican Club Appeals Dismissal | Push for Civil Rights Claim Against Justice Center

Dispute between republican group and Western Justice Center persists after court's recent ruling last Friday

PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | News | The Richard H. Chambers Court of Appeals Building, Ninth Circuit Federal Court in Pasadena

The Pasadena Republican Club is appealing a US District Court ruling that dismissed its civil rights claims against the City of Pasadena and the Western Justice Center, a conflict resolution education organization founded and run by judges and attorneys.

The Club sued because the Center suddenly cancelled an April 20, 2017 speaking engagement with prominent legal scholar Dr. John Eastman after learning he advocates views on same-sex marriage “antithetical” to the Center’s mission. The event was set to take place at Maxwell House, which the Center leases from the City of Pasadena for a dollar a month. Allowing the event to proceed “would hurt our reputation in the community,” former Center executive director Judith Chirlin–who was also named in the suit–told the Club in an email less than three hours before the event.

The appeal was filed Friday in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, four of whose judges serve as Center directors.

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In a 41-page order Dec. 30, Judge A. Wallace Tashima granted the Center and Chirlin’s motion to dismiss, saying the Club’s complaint “does not plausibly allege that the Center and Chirlin were acting under color of state law,” which is necessary to make out a claim under federal civil rights law.

He also granted the City’s motion for summary judgment because “[t]he policies at issue here regarding the rental of the Center’s premises to outside groups were those of the Center, not those of the City.” Tashima rejected the notion that the City was part of a conspiracy with the Center to deny the Club its First Amendment rights.

Center attorney William E. Thomson told the South Pasadenan News he’s “pleased with the district court’s ruling, which was thoroughly reasoned and amply supported by decisions from the United States Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit.” He said he is confident the decision will be affirmed on appeal.

Although the Center “has long advocated” alternative dispute resolution and would “support that avenue” in this case, Thomson declined to say if the parties had discussed an out-of-court solution.

While the case was before the US District Court for the Central District of California, Tashima, a senior US Ninth Circuit Judge, was appointed to preside over it last August after nine judges at the Central District Court in Los Angeles recused themselves, apparently due to their affiliation with the Center.

The Center is a non-profit focused on dispute resolution and bias reduction that was founded and is run by judges and other legal professionals. Its leadership includes a dozen active federal and local judges, including three from the US Central District and four from the Ninth Circuit. In also runs Maxwell House, a historic, city-owned cottage adjacent to the Ninth Circuit’s Pasadena courthouse.

The Center’s ties to the judiciary underscored the possibility of bias. But while Tashima ruled against his client, Pasadena Republican Club attorney Anthony Caso told the South Pasadenan News he is “absolutely” confident he got a fair hearing. He believes the Club will get a fair hearing at the Ninth Circuit too, as he trusts any Center-connected judges will recuse themselves.

The Club sought relief, including money damages. It said the Center canceled the event because it “disagreed with the viewpoint of a religious organization with which the speaker was affiliated.” And because the Center leases Maxwell House from the city, it was serving as a “state actor,” obliging it “to proceed in a manner neutral toward and tolerant” of Eastman’s religious beliefs.

The Club, which had previously held meetings at Maxwell House, signed an $190 “rental” agreement with the Center to allow Eastman to speak there at 6:30 pm. But late that afternoon, Chirlin wrote to cancel, telling Club President Lynn Gabriel she had only that day learned Eastman, a constitutional scholar and former law school president, was also president of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), which opposes same-sex marriage.

In another email three days later, Chirlin told Gabriel she’d presented the request for the Eastman event to the Center’s executive committee. “Because of the heightened political rancor these days,” the committee decided the Center would no longer rent Maxwell House to political groups, but it would permit the Eastman talk because it was already scheduled.

It was unclear if the committee was consulted again before the cancellation. Thomson declined to answer that question too.

City of Pasadena attorney Carol Ann Humiston said the city didn’t know the Center had rented the facility to the Club or that it had cancelled the event. “They were not involved in any way,” she told the court at a hearing Oct. 23. Moreover, she said the city has a non-discrimination policy and that the lease itself specifically prohibits the Center from discriminating.

Tashima asked Humiston if the Center violated the lease by cancelling the talk. The attorney said that is something the court must decide.

The Club’s Cano argued that under the lease, the city delegated to the Center its authority to decide who rents Maxwell House after hours.

But Tashima told him the case law is that the city is liable only if its lease with the Center is “indispensable” to the operation of the city. Caso argued it is, because in order to get permission to purchase Maxwell House from the federal government, the building had to be used for a public purpose. The Center was therefore critical, because its dispute resolution mission constitutes a public purpose, and because Pasadena used the early lease payments to service the public financing debt it drew on to purchase and renovation the building.

Thomson told Tashima that merely leasing the property and renting it to the Center does not make his clients “state actors.”

Although “a symbiotic relationship existed to some degree between the Center and the City,” it did not reach the level required in the relevant case law, Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority, on which Club based its argument, Tashima wrote. “The property was not partly maintained by the City, the City did not knowingly accept the benefits of the alleged discrimination and the Center’s involvement was not indispensable to the City’s financial success.”

Caso said the appeal will focus on the applicability of Burton.


Ben Tansey
Ben Tansey is a journalist and author. He grew up in the South Bay and is a graduate of Evergreen State College. He worked in Washington State as a reporter in a rural timber community and for many years as an editor for a Western electric energy policy publication based in Seattle.