Court Tells Government: Think Twice Before Condemning Property

John Kramer
John Kramer · July 20, 1998

Washington, D.C. ­A New Jersey court today ruled a state agency cannot condemn widow Vera Coking’s home of 37 years and give it to Donald Trump for his private development.

Superior Court Judge Richard Williams ruled against New Jersey’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) and Donald Trump, CRDA’s partner in the condemnation challenge. Trump had worked with a government agency to secure-at below market prices-land he wanted to use as a limousine waiting area and lawn for his Atlantic City Casino. At Trump’s direction, CRDA moved to condemn the widow’s only home, a gold-shop bought by Russian immigrants, and a 27-year-old family-owned Italian restaurant. If taken by the State, the property would be handed over to Mr. Trump at a bargain basement price.

The issue before the judge was whether there were sufficient assurances that these properties would be used for the public purposes for which they were condemned. The judge ruled they weren’t and that any public benefit from these condemnations would be “overwhelmed by the private benefit.” Under the federal and state constitutions, private property condemned by the government through eminent domain must be taken for a “public purpose,” such as a common road or a public utility.

Trump’s lawyers stated in court that they could use the land as a casino/hotel despite the fact that it was taken for a park and parking lot.

The judge recited the proper purposes for condemnation, then explained why they were not fulfilled by a deal that allowed Trump to use the property as he saw fit. Judge Williams stated that in these condemnations, CRDA tried to give Trump a “blank check” to do what he wanted with the properties. Judge Williams pointed out that these were condemnations requested by Trump-a private citizen who stood to gain from the government actions, and that the “consequences and effects” of these condemnations will be “primarily private.”

“This is not just a major win for property owners in Atlantic City,” declared Dana Berliner, an attorney for the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Justice, which represents Coking. “This is a huge victory for property owners nationwide.”

Berliner said, “Up until now, courts have given rubber-stamp approval when it came to condemnations. We hope and expect this decision represents a new age where courts will more carefully scrutinize whether government condemnation of private property is justified, and whether private parties or the public truly benefit from these actions.”

Chip Mellor, president of the Institute for Justice, said, “The power to condemn private property is one of government’s most awesome powers. It is frequently and easily abused to the harm of ordinary people who rarely possess the wherewithal to fight government’s deep pockets. This decision signals the beginning of the end for such insidious practices.”

Trump and CRDA have 45 days to appeal the decision to the New Jersey Appellate Division.

“I didn’t believe in justice before, but now I do,” said IJ client Vera Coking, whose case attracted nationwide attention.

“Everything was working against us in this case until the Institute for Justice became involved,” said restaurateur Clare Sabatini. “After the Institute joined our side, suddenly CRDA became more reasonable in court and to the media.”

Berliner concluded, “We couldn’t have asked for a better decision. This is a vindication of constitutional rights for New Jersey property owners.”