Last week, a national problem in eminent domain was reined in Nashville courts. Local judiciaries often favor government agencies in condemnation actions. Developer Alex Marks of Tower Investments, whose valuable downtown property Nashville sought to acquire, long decried the fact that since 1978, all condemnation actions went to the same Third Circuit judge, without random assignment as is typical in most local courts. Judge Haynes, who presently holds the “condemnation seat,” also has a daughter who works for a firm that represents the Nashville Metropolitan Housing and Development Agency.
One wonders whether Haynes’ bias or the real estate expert jury’s disdain for California-based Tower Investments was to blame, but the jury’s verdict of $16.1 million was much lower than the developer had valued the property. Whatever the case, Tower fought back, finally convincing Joe Binkley, the presiding judge, to reinstate random case assignments. Tower also demanded a trial by a lay jury. Judge Haynes finally recused herself from the case after a reporter exposed the connection with her daughter’s law firm.
Sometimes, it takes a dedicated property owner like Tower Investments to change the system. Thanks to the effort of Tower’s counsel, Nashville property owners will have a fairer shot in court.
From the beginning, Marks — who was an early and ardent backer of the Music City Center in a general sense and a contributor to Karl Dean’s campaign — said MDHA’s offer of $14.8 million for his land was too low. After all, he’d paid $14.7 million for it three years ago.
Meanwhile, he sold an adjacent parcel — another parking lot — to Omni Hotels for $20 million. That land will soon house the headquarters hotel for Nashville’s new convention center.
In dealing with MDHA, Tower has followed the process: Dispute the valuation and go to court. “Court” in this case was the Third Circuit Court of Davidson County, where eminent-domain cases have been assigned since 1978, a vestige of a time when the Third Circuit judge was something of a takings-law enthusiast. In one of numerous hearings, Haynes said the judge “really liked these kinds of cases.”
In the three decades since, it apparently never occurred to anybody to randomly assign the eminent-domain cases, as is done for nearly every other type of civil dispute.
From the start, Tower’s team of lawyers — led by another Californian, Alton Burkhalter — tried to get Haynes off the case.
Haynes’ daughter, Amanda Haynes Young, is, after all, a partner at Miller & Martin, the firm that regularly represents MDHA in takings cases. Young’s chief responsibility at the firm is far away from that field; she’s an expert in health care and telecommunications and acts as Verizon’s lobbyist on Capitol Hill. Nonetheless, for Tower’s attorneys, having Haynes on the bench didn’t pass the smell test.