Key Decisions in Robertson v. Princeton to be Determined at Trial
After reviewing extensive filings, a New Jersey judge today issued rulings on the seven pending motions in the lawsuit against Princeton University by members of the Robertson family. These decisions will help shape the trial of a case that has been closely followed since the heirs of the A & P supermarket fortune sued Princeton in 2002. At stake is control of a gift that has grown to $880 million since Charles and Marie Robertson donated $35 million in 1961, establishing the Robertson Foundation to support graduate programs at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Princeton maintains that the sole purpose of the Robertson Foundation – as expressed by the donor and written in the Foundation’s Certificate of Incorporation – is to support the Wilson school, making Princeton the only beneficiary of the Foundation’s funds. Members of the Robertson family seek control of the Foundation – and its $880 million – saying Princeton has not properly fulfilled the goal of the gift, made to prepare graduate students for public service; they wish to support other graduate schools instead.
Judge Neil Shuster’s rulings indicated that a full trial is needed to resolve the complex matters at hand. Both sides can claim some wins in today’s decisions.
Shuster rejected Princeton’s motion that the University be found the sole beneficiary of the Robertson gift – thus moving the case forward to trial – but wrote that he would separate the Robertson Foundation from Princeton only under "the most egregious and nefarious of circumstances."
Shuster granted Princeton’s motion that a judge – rather than a jury – would rule on the facts at trial. Princeton must return $62,500 in overcharges to the Foundation, but the judge denied the Robertson’s motion regarding returned funds for undergraduate program costs, faculty salaries, and equipment depreciation.
Princeton’s motion that it is proper to spend realized gains from the Foundation’s investments was also granted.
In a case where both sides agree on very little, each offered positive assessments of the rulings. While a trial date has not yet been set, it is clear this case will continue to generate attention and scrutiny, as other institutions watch to see how donor intent can be interpreted years after a gift is made.