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Victory for the Piano Man

Being an IJ client can be hard. Litigation is time consuming, government officials can be oppressive and the feeling of having your business or your home hanging in the balance is a constant source of stress. Longtime IJ client Charlie Birnbaum, the Atlantic City piano tuner who has frequently been featured in the pages of Liberty & Law, has had a harder road than many: For more than four years, the cloud of eminent domain has been hanging over the three-story home he inherited from his parents.

But a ray of light burst through those clouds in August when a state court judge issued a blistering decision calling the state’s attempt to take the home “a manifest abuse of the eminent domain power.” The problem with this taking, as IJ has argued all along, is that state officials have no plan to do anything with Charlie’s land—they simply want to take the home, knock it down and then think really hard about what might go there instead.

The trial in this case, which was held this past April, could not have made that clearer. Every government official who testified admitted that they had only budgeted enough money to purchase the land and demolish the home that currently sits there; they were unsure what would come next. The highlight of the entire proceeding, though, may have been when IJ Attorney Dan Alban adroitly drew the judge’s attention to the state’s own maps of its plans for the area, on which officials had color-coded their plans for each bit of land in the area. Some plots of land were set to be “housing,” others “emergency services”—but Charlie’s land was marked for nothing except “FUTURE DEVELOPMENT.”

Simply put, state officials were not trying to take Charlie’s property because they needed it for anything. They were trying to take it because they thought they could get away with it.

And the judge’s opinion makes clear that they cannot. Drawing heavily on IJ’s arguments, the court’s opinion takes note, on the one hand, of the state of New Jersey’s long history of making big promises for redevelopment schemes in the area, only to have those promises come to nothing—a theme common to eminent domain abuse stories across the country. And, on the other hand, the court notes Charlie’s history with this home, which he has lovingly maintained since his parents passed, which has been the site of innumerable personal tragedies and triumphs, and which he simply wants to keep. Faced with that juxtaposition, the judge seems to have had little trouble choosing the right side.

Charlie’s case is not over, though. Just a few weeks later, the state filed a notice saying it planned to appeal the ruling—which raises the question of why? Why spend government resources fighting an appeal over a piece of land you already admitted you do not have any need for?

The answer is simple. IJ cases are about a lot of things for our clients. They are about their homes or their businesses, their hopes for the future or their memories of the past. But for the government, IJ cases are about one thing: power. Government officials believe their power is unlimited and they will fight tooth and nail against any suggestion otherwise.

Fortunately, for our clients, we prove government officials wrong again and again. Their power is limited—limited by the U.S. Constitution, by the courts and by the constant vigilance of the Institute for Justice. This has already been explained to New Jersey officials by one judge in Atlantic City, but we at IJ will be happy to explain it as many times as is necessary for them to get the picture.

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