To acquire the Raiders football team, the city of Oakland needs only to convince a California judge that the Raiders contribute to the health and well-being of the community and that Oakland will pay a fair market price for the team, according to lawyers for the city, the National Football League and experts in condemnation law.
In a potentially far-reaching decision handed down Monday, the California Supreme Court ruled, 6-1, that Oakland is entitled to use its powers of eminent domain to take over the Raiders to stop them from moving to Los Angeles.
Under principles applied in the case, any city threatened with the loss of a professional sports team would stand a good chance of preventing a team from moving by taking it over through the laws of eminent domain, according to Barry Carter, an expert in condemnation law and an associate professor at Georgetown University Law Center.
"If the Washington Redskins threatened to go to some other city, the District of Columbia could make a very good case for taking over the Redskins," Carter said. A similar strategy could well have been successful in keeping the Senators from moving to Texas 11 years ago, had anyone been clever enough to devise it, he added.
In its ruling Monday, the California high court returned the Raiders case to a state superior court for trial on two issues, whether Oakland will operate the team for public use and how much the city should have to pay for the team.
But Carter, Patrick Lynch, a lawyer for the NFL, and David Self, the lawyer who tried the case for the city of Oakland, all said that courts have historically been liberal in their interpretations of what constitutes public use, and they predicted that should be an easy hurdle to clear. "We need to convince the court that we want the Raiders for a public benefit, not merely for a private gain," said Self.
Neither Al Davis, managing partner of the Raiders, nor his lawyer, Joseph Alioto, were available for comment.
Asked if the case meant that any city could use the process of eminent domain to acquire a professional sports team for any reason, Lynch said there would probably have to be some threat that the team was about to leave town or fold.
"I think there is a general principle of condemnation law that property that is already used for a public use is not taken by eminent domain for that same use," said Lynch.
Self said Oakland and Alameda County initially tried to negotiate with Davis for the team, but the talks were unproductive.
"We were threatened with the imminent loss of the Raiders. They were loading up their trunks. We were facing the loss of revenue from a $65-million, tax-supported stadium, but principally the psychological and social damage to the community from the loss of the Raiders.
"We got to thinking: 'We can condemn land on which to build a stadium, the purpose of which is to provide a professional sports contest. You only need one more thing to have a contest, and that's a team. Why can't you condemn that too.' "
Self said the case could easily go to trial on the public-use issue before the end of the year. That trial would be held before a judge and would likely last several weeks, he said.
If the judge rules in favor of Oakland's eminent-domain takeover, there would be a second trial before a jury on the matter of compensation for Davis and his partners. The most recent NFL franchise to change hands was the Denver Broncos, which was sold in February of 1981 for $35 million.
Unless overturned, the case effectively renders moot a May 8 decision by a federal court jury in Los Angeles that the NFL violated antitrust laws in attempting to block the Raiders from moving to the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Davis has not yet disclosed a timetable for moving, but it appears unlikely the move could be made in time for the 1982 season. Should Oakland acquire the team after it had moved to Los Angeles, Self said, the city would bring the Raiders back to Oakland.