Kids doing homework together at Community Youth Athletic Center, which nearly got shut down by National City in that eminent domain dispute.
  • Kids doing homework together at Community Youth Athletic Center, which nearly got shut down by National City in that eminent domain dispute.
  • Image by Clemente Casillas
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Clement Casillas, who teaches kids to box, likes to point to a saying in the fight world: somebody's got your number.

"You fight the best fight you can, but somebody out there has your number," Casillas says. "It's a shame National City hasn't figured that out."

For seven years, Casillas's Community Youth Athletic Center fought an attempt by National City to use eminent domain and a "blight" label to shut down his center where local kids get free boxing lessons.

The center, at 10th Avenue and National City Boulevard, was condemned as blighted in 2007, so the city could push through a condo project on the block.

But, Casillas says, the Washington D.C.-area Institute for Justice and two San Diego lawyers, Nate Smith and Rich Segal from Pillsbury Winthrop, came to the center's aid.

"They're our angels," Casillas said. "Without them, we couldn't have fought this fight — we would not be here if it hadn't been for our lawyers taking this case for free."

In April 2011, after trial, Superior Court Judge Stephen Denton ruled that the city had violated the U.S. Constitution, California law, and even the state's public records and public meetings acts in its attempt to declare the youth center blighted and use eminent domain to take it.

It was a long and ugly legal fight — the city's first trip to the appeals court was over the correct date of service.

"They fought a war in the trenches from the get-go — they turned everything into a war," said Dan Alban, an attorney with the Institute for Justice. "That's why the case took so long and cost so much."

The city appealed the judgment, which had awarded attorney fees. In October 2013, the Fourth District Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court got everything right except for a review of attorney fees awarded to the center's lawyers.

The courts re-reviewed the fees this year and arrived at fees of about $1.92 million, most of which are earmarked for the Institute of Justice.

On Tuesday, the National City council reviewed the matter in closed session, and no information about the discussion or what may have been decided was released.

But, the local lawyers say, if they decide to continue the fight, which has cost them the fees the city paid to Best, Best and Krieger as well as the $1.92 million they owe the opposing lawyers — as well as their definition of blight — it will only get more costly.

"If they decide to appeal it some more, they are committed to paying 7-1/2 percent interest a year on that $1.92 million," said Rich Segal of Pillsbury. "That's $150,000 in interest a year to keep fighting."

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