Judge swap delays party line suit, but decision still likely months away

By: - September 20, 2021 7:41 am

Gov. Phil Murphy and all 120 legislative seats are on the November ballot as well. (Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

A lawsuit to eliminate a controversial element of New Jersey’s ballot design has been delayed by a June transfer to a newly confirmed federal judge, but the deferral is likely just a speed bump in a case that could stretch for months or even years.

The suit to eliminate the party line — which groups party-backed candidates together on primary ballots — languished for much of the summer as plaintiffs and named clerks submitted dueling filings over the defendants’ motions for dismissal.

U.S. District Court Judge Freda Wolfson transferred the case to Judge Zahid Quraishi on June 24, roughly two weeks after the longtime magistrate judge was confirmed to a seat on the federal bench.

“He has a new docket, so he’s catching up on all the cases. We’re all at the mercy of the courts, as is always the case in litigation in particular,” said Henal Patel, director of the New Jersey Insitute for Social Justice’s Democracy and Justice Program and counsel for two of the case’s amici filers. “No one has a good timeline.”

Former House candidate Christine Conforti filed the suit last July. Five other past, current, or future candidates and progressive group the New Jersey Working Families Alliance joined the suit in January, alleging the party line system tramples constitutionally protected rights to free association and speech, among others.

In all likelihood, the case won’t be decided soon. Even if Quraishi orders the case dismissed, as defendant clerks from Monmouth, Ocean, Mercer, Bergen, Atlantic, and Hudson Counties have asked, the plaintiffs are likely to appeal the decision.

The motions to dismiss represent the first major hurdle for the plaintiffs. If they clear it, a lengthy discovery process is likely to follow.

Even absent an appeal, a dismissal is unlikely to kill the suit. The candidate plaintiffs were chosen strategically, each with standing in a separate county. That means the suit would persist even if the judge tosses claims made by a given candidate.

“It’s like a game of dodgeball — as long as someone’s still out on the court, the issue is still live,” said Sue Altman, the New Jersey Working Families state director.

Altman, a longtime opponent of some party leaders in South Jersey, and Brett Pugach, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said they are confident each of the plaintiffs would make it through, adding their strategic selection was something akin to a failsafe.

“We don’t want this getting kicked on a technicality,” Pugach said. “We don’t think it will. We certainly don’t think it should, but we don’t want to give any openings.”

New Jersey’s balloting system is unique. Almost every other state groups candidates by office sought, but New Jersey’s primary ballots group candidates by slogan.

The system puts party-backed candidates in the same column or row as candidates at the top of the ticket. Candidates without the same advantage are sometimes relegated to ballot edges, with columns of blank space separating them and their organization-endorsed opponents.

Supporters of the line argue counties should have a degree of control over their candidates. In Morris County, where Republican county committee people this year voted to adopt a line, GOP Chairwoman Laura Ali argued a more robust candidate-selection process was needed to combat Democrats’ growing strength there.

There’s some variance in how the line is awarded. In most cases, elected county committee members vote to endorse a candidate, though it is sometimes awarded at the discretion of county organization chairs, who themselves are elected by county committee members.

Candidates for county committee can run on party lines, and while outside candidates can establish their own lines and bracket with other candidates, it’s rare that they fill out a ticket.

“Obviously, the hardest years are the ones where you have really, really high-up officials. What are you supposed to recruit your own president of the United States or are you supposed to recruit your own senator?” Altman said. “That gets very hard.”

It’s made even more difficult because competing slates might agree on a candidate for higher office.

“It gets tricky because a lot of people who were aligned with Murphy decided to run off the line,” Altman said, referring to Gov. Phil Murphy, who sought renomination on organizational lines. “You end up in a situation where you’re essentially running against Murphy by proxy when you don’t want to.”

Studies have shown the system benefits candidates endorsed by county party organizations, and the advantage is often enough to oust incumbents.

Two incumbent Assemblywomen, BettyLou DeCroce (R-Morris) and Serena DiMaso (R-Monmouth), saw primary defeats in June after losing bids for the party line.

Citing the insurmountability of a line headed by Murphy, Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti (D-Hudson) chose not to run again after Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis invoked a long-standing tradition that allows Hudson County mayors to pick a member of their legislative delegation and kicked Chiaravalloti from the line.

Former Lambertville Mayor David DelVecchio appears to be the only candidate to lose a race while running on a party line in this year’s primary.

While organizational lines have been shown to lend an advantage, party backing brings other benefits — like funds and organizing power — that help land candidates in office.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.