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Victory for Atlantic City Piano Man

By Dan Alban

For five years, IJ has been fighting an eminent domain battle on behalf of Atlantic City piano tuner Charlie Birnbaum. As loyal readers of Liberty & Law will recall, a New Jersey state agency called the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority has been trying to take the home Charlie’s parents first purchased in 1969 and replace it with … nothing.

Literally nothing.

The state plans to take the home, knock it down, and then think really hard about what it might put there instead. Charlie, armed with the resolve he learned from his Holocaust-survivor parents, has had one consistent message for state officials: No way. I am not going anywhere.

In February, New Jersey’s appellate court said the same thing: Charlie is staying put. In a unanimous opinion, the court affirmed IJ’s initial victory in this case, which followed a trial held back in 2016. The trial court found that the government’s attempt to take Charlie’s property without any credible plan for doing anything with it was a “manifest abuse of the eminent domain power.”

The state appealed that ruling, arguing that the judge had been wrong to impose any limits on its power at all. But the appellate court was unimpressed by the state’s claim to unlimited authority. The most recent opinion makes clear not only that there are limits on eminent domain in New Jersey but also that the courts stand ready to enforce them as necessary.

The government’s arrogance was not unfounded. Before it tried to condemn Charlie’s home, this state agency had lost only one condemnation case since it was first established in 1976. (Not coincidentally, that one loss was an IJ case, so perhaps the agency should have learned its lesson already.) But the appellate court’s ruling shows that—at least when it comes to eminent domain—the times in New Jersey are very much a-changin’.

This decision may finally mark the end of five hard years of fighting in a case that showcases the best of IJ: the dedication of our staff, our lawyers, and—most of all—our clients. Charlie Birnbaum is an indomitable spirit whose courage and optimism exemplify everything that makes IJ clients remarkable. When IJ Senior Attorney Robert McNamara, the lead attorney on Charlie’s case, called to tell him we had won, he had one question: “Is this a ruling that will help other people?” Assured that it was, he asked that we pass on his deepest gratitude to everyone who made it possible for him to stand up to overwhelming government force and to save the home that’s been in his family for half a century.

So, on behalf of Charlie and all of us here at IJ, thank you for making this fight possible. Together, we truly are changing the world.

Dan Alban is an IJ senior attorney.

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