Two centuries ago the British theologian William Paley defended private property against the charge that it benefits only the wealthy. "It is rather more the concern of the poor to stand up for the laws than of the rich," he wrote, "for it is the law which defends the weak against the strong, the humble against the powerful, the little against the great."
Just ask Donald Trump. For several years he has been trying to force an elderly widow out of her Atlantic City home, which is inconveniently located next to the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, in a spot where he would like to park limousines. Last week a court told him to leave her alone.
Trump must have been surprised. Like other casino moguls in Atlantic City, he had assumed that the usual rules for buying and selling real estate did not apply to him. He need only express interest in a property, and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority would condemn it, turning it over to him at a bargain price.
So it was that Vera Coking received a letter from the CRDA in May 1994. "YOU MAY BE REQUIRED TO MOVE WITHIN 90 DAYS AFTER YOU RECEIVE THIS NOTICE," it said. "IF YOU REMAIN IN POSSESSION OF THE PROPERTY AFTER THAT TIME, CRDA MAY BE ABLE TO HAVE YOU AND YOUR BELONGINGS REMOVED BY THE SHERIFF."
Coking had lived in "the property" since 1962, running a boardinghouse and raising three children there. To be suddenly dispossessed, her daughter told The New York Times, was "tough to understand and even tougher to accept."
The CRDA sent similar notices to Vincent and Clare Sabatini, who had been running an Italian restaurant up the block from Coking's house for three decades, and Peter and Josef Banin, Russian immigrant brothers who had recently opened a pawnshop next to the restaurant. All three properties are located on Columbia Place, inside the L formed by Trump Plaza and its east tower.
Although another casino developer had offered Coking $1 million for her home in 1983, the CRDA said it was worth only about $250,000. The authority offered $174,000 for the pawnshop, which the Banins had just purchased for $500,000, and $700,000 for the restaurant, an amount the Sabatinis said would not be enough to start again at a new location.
None of the owners wanted to sell at the prices offered by the CRDA. Ordinarily, that would not have mattered. As Trump explained on ABC's 20/20 in May, "cities have a right to condemn for the good of a city."
In Trump's view, not surprisingly, what is good for him is good for the city. It is unusual for courts to challenge that sort of reasoning. Although the power of eminent domain was originally intended to facilitate public works such as roads and water systems, it is not uncommon nowadays for governments to condemn properties on behalf of favored business people.
The New Jersey and U.S. constitutions theoretically limit eminent domain to property taken "for public use," but that concept has been stretched to cover private projects deemed to benefit the community. Trump said he wanted to use the land near his casino for parking and a lawn–amenities the CRDA believed the public would welcome.
When he put the kibosh on Trump's plans, Superior Court Judge Richard Williams was not so bold as to question that argument. But Williams pointed out that once the CRDA took the land away from its owners and gave it to Trump, there was no guarantee that he would use it as advertised. He might decide to add more blackjack tables and slot machines instead.
"The primary interest served here is a private rather than a public one," the judge concluded, "and as such the actions cannot be justified under the law." Institute for Justice attorney Dana Berliner, who represented Coking, said "we hope and expect this decision represents a new age where courts will more carefully scrutinize whether government condemnation of private property is justified."
Even if that doesn't happen, Coking's victory is a reproach to anyone who argues that property rights are designed to protect the rich and powerful. Coking's modest house may not seem impressive next to Trump's gambling palace. But as she put it, in words that would have been familiar to William Paley, "This is my home. This is my castle."