State Supreme Court Denies Request To Remove Payne County Judge

Monday, February 5th 2007, 1:25 pm
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ The state Supreme Court denied an appeal Monday to remove a district judge from a heated eminent domain case involving Oklahoma State University.

The 6-2 decision appeared to deal a major blow to holdout homeowners Kevin and Joel McCloskey, who claimed Payne County District Judge Donald Worthington should be removed from the case because he had pre-decided its outcome by finding that the Board of Regents is constitutional and could acquire their property.

Last month, a Noble County judge ruled that Worthington could hear the matter, involving the last piece of property OSU needs to build the first phase of a $316 million planned athletic village.

Attorneys for the regents argued in legal filings that claims Worthington had improperly prejudged the case were ``wholly without merit'' and said the judge was ``requiring the defendant to play by the same rules everyone else has to follow.''

``It's a Payne County matter,'' OSU spokesman Gary Shutt said Monday. ``We believe this case belonged there in the first place.''

Worthington will decide next month whether OSU can acquire the property for the village through eminent domain, the taking of private property for a public use.

The McCloskeys have long claimed that the university had no authority to force them to sell their land because its governing body, the Board of Regents, has failed to abide by a long-forgotten requirement that at least five of its eight members be farmers.

Now, the brothers, who own several rental properties in Stillwater, will argue before a judge they twice tried to remove from the case.

``We felt like we weren't going to get a fair trial from him,'' Kevin McCloskey said. ``I hope that I'm wrong and that we are going to get a fair trial.''

Meanwhile, the brothers' 66-year-old Stillwater ranch home they bought to renovate and rent for $550 a month remains vacant.

Oklahoma State says the home will not be in the way of the spring groundbreaking on the first project in the village, an indoor practice facility. The village is being built with a record, $165 million gift from oilman alumnus T. Boone Pickens.

It has also locked up about 90 percent of the properties needed for the second phase of the village, Shutt said. That phase will include a baseball field and tennis facilities, among others.

Eventually, OSU wants to install outdoor practice fields where the home stands. Now, it is a tiny island amid gravel student parking lots.

Last year, OSU offered the McCloskeys $62,000 for the home, about 2 1/2 times more than they paid for it.

But they turned it down. Later, a board of court-appointed appraisers estimated the property to be worth $84,000.

Unless a settlement is reached out of court, a jury will decide how much the property is worth.