Achieving the Unachievable for Charlie Birnbaum

By John E. Kramer

When a judge issues a ruling, he or she is basically saying, “My mind is made up. Here is my decision, and it is final.”

Rarely—very rarely—do judges change their minds once opinions are issued. Indeed, in IJ’s nearly 25-year history, and out of hundreds of cases we have litigated, we can count on a few fingers the number of times that this has happened, and usually it was because a higher court forced a judge’s hand.

In the face of those unlikely odds, IJ attorneys Bob McNamara and Dan Alban returned to court in January of this year and asked New Jersey Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez to reverse his November ruling in which he said the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) could take the long-time Atlantic City family home of our client Charlie Birnbaum, even without a specific need or plan for Charlie’s land.

IJ teamed up with Charlie, a professional piano tuner, in May 2014 after CRDA gave itself the authority to seize properties as part of a “mixed-use development” project for the bankrupt Revel Casino. After January’s hearing, on what is called in the law a motion for reconsideration, we waited. We knew the odds were heavily against us, but we were hopeful for Charlie.

And then the improbable happened. In August, Judge Mendez ruled that CRDA may not condemn Charlie’s home unless it comes forward with evidence justifying the taking—something it has entirely failed to do. 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, which the judge went on to say the court “lacks confidence” it can do.

We were thunderstruck to say the least. Certainly this is not the ultimate ruling we seek, but this turnabout was a great reward for Bob, Dan and Charlie’s unwavering faith in the rightness of our stance—that the government cannot just take someone’s home for any reason or no reason whatsoever, that such takings can only be allowed if it is for some specific and clearly stated public use. CRDA is now on its heels, and IJ will not rest until this abusive agency is forced to back down and leaves our client alone once and for all.

The ruling was yet another demonstration of the judicial philosophy that IJ fights for every single day: judicial engagement, where judges do not just take the government’s word but, rather, actually look at the evidence and truly judge what is going on.

Resiliency is a hallmark of IJ and its advocates. And this ruling demonstrates why that characteristic is so important if we are to win for our clients.

John E. Kramer is IJ’s vice president for communications.

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