In early February, IJ filed its opening brief with the New Jersey Appellate Court in one of the most important post-Kelo eminent domain cases in the nation. The City of Long Branch, N.J., has used its power of eminent domain to try to take the homes of modest-income senior citizens and young families so it may give the land to a private developer to build luxury condominiums for the wealthy.
This case is outrageous on many levels. Many of the homeowners in this neighborhood are senior citizens who worked their entire lives to be able to afford their small cottages along the shore. Anna DeFaria, 81, worked as a banquet waitress for many years, carrying heavy trays and saving her meager earnings so that she and her now-deceased husband could afford their dream home. Newark truck driver Carmen Vendetti and his wife, Fifi, also realized their dream of escaping the noise and congestion of the city by buying their little red-brick haven around the corner from Anna. The fact that the city is trying to force these people from their homes so a subsidiary of K.Hovnanian—one of the largest homebuilders in the nation—can put up generic, million-dollar condos is simply unconscionable.
The trial judge in this case was so eager to uphold the condemnations that he denied the homeowners even the ability to conduct discovery or to have a trial on the legality of the city’s actions. The judge’s opinion was riddled with major and obvious legal errors. We are confident that the decision will be overturned on appeal.
The city’s actions in this case are both tyrannical and extremely petty at the same time. For instance, when IJ agreed to represent the homeowners in the appeals court, we filed a motion to become a member of the New Jersey bar for this case, a routine practice we do in states wherever we file suit. The city objected to our motion, claiming, among its arguments, that even though we are the nation’s leading public interest group fighting eminent domain abuse and we have been involved in every major eminent domain case in the past decade, we are not necessarily eminent domain “specialists”—one of the requirements for being admitted. It is this type of maddening argument that gives lawyers their bad reputation. Not surprisingly, the appellate court rejected it and permitted us to join the case. But the city’s attempt to get us kicked off the case is a reminder that, in the battle for liberty in our courts, it is not always about principled arguments concerning the meaning of the Constitution. We also have to counter down-and-dirty attempts by government lawyers who will often stop at nothing, no matter how absurd the argument, to take people’s property away from them.
Scott Bullock is an IJ senior attorney.