The first case Christina Martin ever argued in court wasn’t big enough to catch most public interest attorneys’ attention. It was about a ticket on a car.
Christina was a young Pacific Legal Foundation attorney in her first real legal job. She’d moved cross-country from Oregon to Florida for “her dream job” at PLF. One day she came across an inquiry from a prospective client: A man in Alexandria, Virginia, had been ticketed for putting a “For Sale” sign on his car, which many cities expressly forbid.
To Christina, the ticket was a clear free speech violation.
“I was like, ‘Aren’t we in America?’” she says. “I mean, you can’t put a ‘For Sale’ on your own car?”
She took on the case and won. “That was a lot of fun,” she remembers. “We really ruffled some feathers in Alexandria.”
Talking to Christina now, as she prepares to argue her first case at the Supreme Court of the United States, it’s clear she still has the same approach as when she argued that “For Sale” case years ago. If she stumbles onto something that strikes her as wrong, she’ll turn her full attention to it, even if other people are inclined to ignore it. She talks animatedly about her cases. Injustice bugs her. She can’t stand seeing government authorities push people around.
It’s that attitude that brought Christina to this moment, poised to argue a case that could change thousands of Americans’ lives.
‘Left with nothing’
Christina had been working at PLF for about a year and a half when, in September 2013, The Washington Post published a long investigation into the curious case of Benjamin Coleman. The headline was stark: “Left with Nothing.”
Benjamin, an elderly ex-Marine with dementia, had forgotten to pay the tax bill on his Washington, DC, home. The District of Columbia placed a lien on the property, then sold the lien to a private investor. Benjamin’s home, valued at $197,000, now belonged to the private investor—“all because he didn’t pay a $134 property tax bill,” The Washington Post emphasized.
Christina was appalled when she read about what happened to Benjamin. Here was a veteran in the most vulnerable time of his life—widowed and struggling with dementia—and his own government had taken everything from him over a small unpaid tax bill.
“That’s stealing,” Christina says.
The Post’s 10-month investigation had uncovered hundreds of District homeowners who, like Benjamin, lost their homes over tax debts of less than $1,000. Several of these homeowners, including Benjamin, filed a class-action lawsuit against the District in 2014.
Christina wanted to file an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit. But when she spoke to others at PLF, they were initially more hesitant.
“At the time, she was a relatively young attorney,” Larry Salzman, now director of litigation at PLF, explains. “So this younger attorney is saying, ‘I found this thing that seems crazy.’ There was some skepticism. There was a lot of: Let’s fact-check this and make sure what’s happening is what we think is happening.”
“Everyone’s always thinking, ‘There’s got to be more to the story,’” Christina says. “But as it turned out, there really wasn’t.”
As Christina suspected, the District of Columbia had blatantly violated Benjamin’s Fifth Amendment rights by failing to pay “just compensation” for taking his home. The Just Compensation Clause compels the government to pay a fair price whenever it takes private property for public use. In other words, if the government takes a $200,000 home to satisfy a $1,000 tax debt, it needs to compensate the homeowner for the $199,000 in home equity he’ll be losing. Otherwise, the government is simply stealing.
Once others at PLF saw that Christina had gotten the facts right, they gave her the green light to get involved.
“At that point, everyone understood: Wow, this is incredible that this is happening to people,” Larry says.
The District of Columbia was trying to argue that homeowners who fail to pay property taxes on time forfeit their property rights. But in her blistering amicus brief, Christina said that “[I]f states and the federal government were allowed the final say on what constitutes a valid forfeiture of constitutional rights, then government would find it all too easy to take property—indeed, all rights—from the public.”
Christina also pointed out that by stealing from “politically powerless” residents like Benjamin, the city had failed “the chief object of government: the protection of individual liberties and property.”
Christina’s amicus brief in Coleman v. District of Columbia caused a stir. Suddenly, a national organization was paying attention to a problem that only legal aid lawyers and class-action firms previously seemed to care about. The Washington Post editorial board cited Christina and her PLF colleague Todd Gaziano when it urged DC to “do the right thing.”
Meanwhile, a couple of Michigan lawyers started talking to PLF about similar cases. This wasn’t just a DC problem. This was happening all over the country.
‘Their jaws dropped’
Across the dozen states that allow local governments to keep surplus value from tax foreclosures, roughly three homes a day are seized.
That means every single day, three American families are grappling with the loss of their most valuable asset. Most of them have no idea, until it’s too late, that a delayed tax payment could leave them homeless.
After Christina took on two Michigan cases—Wayside Church and Rafaeli, in which an elderly man lost his home because he underpaid his tax bill by $8—she started getting emails from people all over the country who’d had their homes taken. Some of them weren’t even seeking legal help. “Some were just sharing their stories,” Christina remembers. It was cathartic for them. One woman told Christina she’d been a child when the government took her family’s home.
Christina started working with PLF’s legal policy and strategic research teams to pinpoint exactly which state laws allowed home equity theft.
“She was relentless,” Larry remembers. “She kept pushing the scope of the project wider: more states, more cases.”
At one point, Christina found herself at a Montana property rights conference with a captive audience of state legislators. She was scheduled to speak about a different property rights issue—but she knew Montana was one of the states that allowed home equity theft. She couldn’t let the opportunity go by.
She told the audience about the Rafaeli case in Michigan. Then she added: “But before you start to judge the government in Michigan, you need to look at home. Because Montana’s doing the same thing.”
Their jaws dropped.
Afterward, a state senator approached Christina. “We need to fix this,” he told her. He meant it. PLF’s legal policy team helped the senator draft a bill to end home equity theft in Montana, and the bill passed.
Shortly afterward, the Michigan Supreme Court handed PLF a victory in Rafaeli—a victory that meant Michigan counties would no longer be able to keep surplus proceeds from tax foreclosure sales.
That win brought even more cases to Christina, with more victims hopeful that PLF could undo the injustice they’d suffered.
Fighting for the forgotten
The people harmed by home equity theft are basically forgotten by society, Christina says. “They don’t have a voice, typically. They don’t have money. They can’t hire lawyers. They don’t know their rights. They’re just forgotten.”
In the past couple of years, she and PLF have represented a Massachusetts woman forced to live in her car after her home was taken, a farmer about to lose 34 acres of land, a nurse whose home was sold by a shady government-connected non-profit, and two brothers fighting to save the house their parents left them.
Now Christina is representing 94-year-old grandmother Geraldine Tyler at the Supreme Court after Hennepin County, Minnesota, took Geraldine’s Minneapolis condo. Remarkably, the county has defended its conduct in its briefs by pointing to a 13th-century law that allowed feudal lords to take their tenants’ land if “quit-rents” were not paid on time.
But Geraldine Tyler “was not a vassal owing fealty to her lord,” PLF wrote in our response brief. And America’s Founders rejected the feudal system “as inconsistent with a free people.”
The Tyler case will be argued on Wednesday, April 26, the last day of the Supreme Court term. By July, the Justices will have announced their decision—a decision that could rescue the life savings of families across the country.
Three years ago, in 2020, Christina told PLF’s leadership that she wanted to end home equity theft in five years. “And I meant it,” she says. “I believed it. Because I’m at Pacific Legal Foundation, and we can actually get to the Supreme Court.”
And now, she says, “here we are.”