Judge Halts NJ Casino Authority’s Attempt to Take Piano Tuner’s Home

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · August 21, 2015

Arlington, Va.—Today, Judge Julio Mendez of the New Jersey Superior Court ruled that the state’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) is not allowed to condemn the longtime family home of local piano-tuner Charlie Birnbaum unless it comes forward with more evidence justifying the taking. The order gives CRDA 180 days to “reevaluate the feasibility of the proposed project” and provide the court with more evidence to justify the taking.

Today’s decision is the latest development in a case, Casino Reinvestment Development Authority v. Birnbaum, that has drawn national attention. The battle pits Birnbaum, a longtime Atlantic City fixture who has tuned pianos for acts like Frank Sinatra since 1980, against a state agency that is trying to use eminent domain to seize his longtime family home, which Charlie inherited from his parents, both Holocaust survivors. Charlie and his wife, Cindy, are represented in their fight by the Institute for Justice and by New Jersey eminent domain expert Peter Dickson of the firm Potter & Dickson.

“Today’s thoughtful ruling is a victory for judicial engagement and for property rights nationwide,” explained IJ Senior Attorney Robert McNamara. “The court is rightly concerned that CRDA lacks any concrete plans for this property. The simple truth is that CRDA isn’t taking Charlie’s property because they need it for something—they’re just taking it because they think they can get away with it. And, as today’s ruling shows, that is simply not enough.”

The judge’s opinion reflects a serious concern about Atlantic City and its future, noting that, while many property owners are all too willing to leave the city, “Birnbaum is willing to ride out this period of Atlantic City uncertainty and maintain ownership of the family property.”

The opinion continues: “The Court shares Birnbaum’s concern about the uncertainty of the various plans for Atlantic City’s recovery and the ability of the CRDA to implement the plan that justifies the taking of the Birnbaum property. . . . The Court lacks confidence that the plans as presented here will be effectuated in light of the uncertainty surrounding Atlantic City, the economic conditions of Atlantic City, and the pending legislation.”

“This ruling underscores that what CRDA is doing makes no sense,” explained Charlie Birnbaum. “Thank goodness that Judge Mendez has brought this kind of common sense to the situation.”
Today’s opinion marks the second time the Institute for Justice has secured a judicial victory against CRDA, having previously successfully prevented it from taking the home of elderly widow Vera Coking in the 1990s.

“If Charlie’s home isn’t safe, no one’s home is safe,” continued IJ Attorney Dan Alban. “All too often, state agencies like CRDA act as if they can get away with anything they want. The role of the courts is to tell them otherwise, and that’s exactly what happened today.”

“Today’s opinion pushes back against a rising tide of eminent domain abuse in this country,” concluded IJ President and General Counsel Chip Mellor. “The Institute for Justice stands ready to protect Charlie’s home, and those of countless others, from unaccountable government agents bent on taking what isn’t theirs.”