Judge declines to reinstate Sweeney to redistricting panel

By: - February 1, 2022 6:08 pm

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney speaks to a colleague prior to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivering his budget address for fiscal year 2016 to the Legislature, February 24, 2015 at the Statehouse in Trenton, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

A Superior Court judge on Tuesday declined to reinstate former Senate President Steve Sweeney to the state’s legislative redistricting commission following his removal during an intra-party spat with Democratic State Chair LeRoy Jones.

Judge Robert Lougy said after a roughly two-hour hearing Sweeney had failed to establish that his case meets the strict standards it would have needed to for Lougy to issue an injunction halting Jones’ removal of Sweeney from the panel.

Lougy also ruled against Sweeney’s argument that members of the commission serve fixed terms that would preclude Jones from removing him at all.

Sweeney’s loss in court Tuesday is another public defeat for the Gloucester County Democrat, who represented the 3rd District for two decades in the Legislature until he was unseated by Republican Ed Durr in November.

Sweeney was appointed to the New Jersey Apportionment Commission in 2020 as part of a deal between then-Democratic State Chairman John Currie and Jones, Currie’s successor, that ended a fight over control of the Democratic State Committee.

But last week, Jones dropped the longtime South Jersey Democratic leader from the bipartisan commission, which is tasked with redrawing New Jersey’s legislative district boundaries. In a statement explaining the change, Jones called it his duty to “select standard bearers who will best represent the Democratic Party’s interests on the commission and ensure a strong and representative party moving forward.”

Sweeney sued, charging Jones lacks the authority to remove him from the commission because the Nov. 15 deadline to appoint commission members and the Dec. 1 deadline for Secretary of State Tahesha Way to certify those appointments had each passed. The commission’s members serve fixed terms that start on Dec. 1 and do not end until a map is certified on March 1, Sweeney argued.

The defending parties — which included attorneys for Jones, Way, and the commission’s Democratic members — argued Tuesday the commission’s members do not serve fixed terms and that Jones as chair has a right to create and fill vacancies on the panel. Lougy sided with them.

“The constitution broadly grants the power of appointment to the party chair with no restrictions on organization, procedure, or duration of appointments,” Lougy said.

Sweeney claimed the appointment of Pinelands Commission Chairwoman Laura Matos to replace him ran afoul of a constitutional provision requiring party chairs give “due consideration” to geography when selecting their committee’s membership. Matos lives in Belmar and Sweeney in West Deptford.

But Lougy found Sweeney did not demonstrate his removal and Matos’ subsequent appointment would substantively harm South Jersey residents, as the former Senate president had claimed. Lougy added New Jerseyans would face greater harm if the Apportionment Commission cannot approve a map by its March 1 deadline.

Attorneys for the commission’s five Republican delegates and tiebreaker Philip Charchman opposed Sweeney’s request for an injunction, charging it would prevent the commission from meeting its March 1 deadline. But they refrained from making other arguments related to the former senator’s removal.

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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.

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