Where are They Now

Where are They Now:

IJ Clients Past & Present Share Their Stories

By John E. Kramer

Ever wonder what happened to that courageous van driver IJ went to court on behalf of in New York City? Or how about that widow IJ successfully defended when Donald Trump convinced the government to take her home for his use? Or how about that school choice mom from Milwaukee?

For those of you who couldn't participate in the Institute for Justice's 10th anniversary celebration (where many of IJ's current and former clients gathered), let us bring you up to speed on where some of them are now. And let them tell you in their own words what a difference the Institute for Justice has made in their lives.

Hector Ricketts: A Hero Of Ground Zero

Not only does New York City van entrepreneur Hector Ricketts continue to provide van service to tens of thousands of New York City commuters, but in the aftermath of 9/11, Hector organized a voluntary shuttle service at Mayor Giuliani's request that ferried thousands of workers and the surviving family members to and from Ground Zero. The free service has provided more than 3,000 trips to and from the site.

You might remember that after losing his job back in the 1980s, Hector Ricketts went into business for himself operating jitney vans. He founded Queens Van Plan, Inc., which provides reliable transportation at an affordable price and employs 53 people.

The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, acting at the insistence of the public transportation unions, began enforcing arbitrary regulations that forbid van entrepreneurs from operating on the same streets as any public bus. Vans also could not pick up passengers who hailed them from the curb, but instead could only pick up passengers by "pre-arrangement."

From 1994 to 1997, the City Council denied 98 percent of all vans that sought licenses. In February 1997, the Institute filed suit on behalf of Ricketts to open the streets to privately operated van services.

In March 1999, the Institute won an important victory preventing the City Council's veto over new dollar van operators. Nevertheless, the regulations preventing Hector from operating his vans on bus routes remain in place. IJ continues to appeal the case and looks forward to setting a binding legal precedent recognizing the right of Ricketts to honest enterprise.

Hector recently said, "I saw early in my work with IJ it is made up of a team of brilliant attorneys. That didn't surprise me; there are brilliant attorneys out there. What surprised me was their humanity: they immerse themselves in the human aspect of their cases--showing how their cases concern real people. They're not seeking multimillion dollar victories. They're looking to remove barriers. They are lawyers who care deeply about human beings. Any victory IJ has on behalf of a small group of clients has a big impact on people in similar circumstances across the nation."

Vera Coking: At Home Trumping Eminent Domain Abuse

Widow Vera Coking wanted nothing more than to live in her home of 37 years next to the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. But her neighbor, Donald Trump, convinced a New Jersey government agency to take Vera's home and give the property to him so his clients could park their limousines there. That is hardly a "public use" as demanded by the U.S. and New Jersey constitutions when the government exercises its power of eminent domain. On the day before Thanksgiving, the government agency notified Vera that she must vacate her home within 90 days or the sheriff would remove her.

The Institute for Justice joined with Vera to raise constitutional defenses against the taking of her property. In July 1998, a New Jersey court ruled the State agency could not take Vera's home and that any public benefit from these condemnations would be "overwhelmed by the private benefit."

Vera's victory was not just a major win for her, but also for property owners nationwide. Inspired by her success in the face of such powerful opponents, each month dozens of individuals nationwide contact the Institute for Justice to gain insight into how to fight similar forced transfers of their property for the benefit of other private parties.

Vera said, "The government was going to take my home from me to give to Trump so he could expand his casino. Where is the justice in that? We're not in another country where anyone can come in and say, ‘We want your home. Get out!' This is America. My husband fought in the war and worked to make sure I would have a roof over my head, and they want to take it from me? I couldn't understand what the government was doing.

"They kept on harassing me to get out. But why should I? This was my home. They gave me 90 days to get out of my house or they would send the sheriff to put me and my belongings out into the street. I thought they were going to take my home. How could I fight them? I'm a widow. But I worked hard for this place. I built this house so beautifully. I wasn't going to give it up that easily.

"Without the Institute for Justice, I didn't have any chance to keep my house. The Institute for Justice works to help the little people like me. Thanks to the Institute for Justice, I was able to fight, and here I am today--in my own home."

Vera remains in her dream home of more than 40 years.

Pilar Gomez: Helping Others Choose Choice

Pilar Gomez was one of thousands of parents in Milwaukee who knew the public schools weren't educating her children. But, like many loving parents, she lacked the resources to enroll her children in better private schools that could give them the education they so desperately needed. So it was with great excitement that Pilar became one of the first parents to have her children participate in Milwaukee's path-breaking school choice program. Her son, Andres, received a voucher that would allow him to enroll in an education environment that best met his needs.

No sooner was the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program passed, however, than it was challenged in court by the teachers' unions, the ACLU, the NAACP and other organizations seeking to preserve the educational status quo. With deep pockets and teams of lawyers fighting to shut it down, Pilar and other parents thought that Milwaukee's bold experiment would soon end.

But then Pilar heard about the Institute for Justice's defense of the choice program. She and many others signed up as IJ clients to intervene in the lawsuit to fight to keep the program alive. Thanks in large part to IJ's advocacy over a period of eight years, the program passed constitutional muster in June 1998. And when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the decision upholding the program as constitutional, Pilar and thousands of other parents in Milwaukee had finally won the opportunity to exercise school choice.
Pilar recently said, "When I begin to think of what makes IJ so special, it literally brings tears to my eyes. The answer is as easy as looking at my children. Because, when I look at them I see the result of what IJ has done for me. They've given my family personal freedom and given my children a chance to succeed in school and in life. They've challenged the status quo that would have (unless changed) continued to hold my children hostage to failing public schools without remorse. IJ came to my rescue when all hope was gone. The IJ team is extraordinary. I am truly blessed and consider them to be a part of my family. Now, how many lawyers can you say that about?"

Pilar Gomez recently accepted a position as education outreach coordinator with the office of Wisconsin Governor Scott McCallum.

John E. Kramer is the Institute for Justice's vice president for communications.


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