Superior Court Judge James P. Savio today ruled the Democratic county committees in Atlantic and Cape May counties may not postpone elections until next year.
Savio ordered the filing deadline to be reopened for an indeterminate period of time.
He also opened the door to parties holding a virtual meeting to amend their bylaws in time for the upcoming primary.
New Jersey Working Families Alliance and several progressive activists challenged the decision to postpone elections for county committee until 2021.
The ruling applies only to Atlantic and Cape May Democrats, since they were the only ones involved in the lawsuit.
Fourteen county party organizations of both parties across the state have decided to move their county committee elections and party reorganization meetings until next year in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Savio found that no meeting of the full county committee was held to change their terms, just a meeting of the executive committee of the party. His ruling nullified the action.
“The situation that’s developed on the fly under unprecedented circumstances,” said Stephen Barry, counsel to the Cape May Democrats.
Sue Altman, the executive director of NJ Working Families, said that the critical argument is when the power of political parties limits democracy.
“Democratic lawyer arguing his organization is a private entity,” Altman said on Twitter. “Therefore shouldn’t be subject to any of this. Like it’s a frat house election. Not our elected officials.”
John Carbone, an election law expert who represents county clerks from both parties, told Savio that he was concerned about changes that will have a “cascading effect” on the printing and mailing of ballots.
New Jersey Democratic State Committee officials recommended that counties extend the terms of county committee members across the state, but not a directive.
“The idea was to give you all a pathway for flexibility,” Raj Parikh, counsel to the state party, told county chairs last month. “The state committee is not mandating anything, nor would we.”
Gov. Phil Murphy declined last month to take a position on whether county political organizations should postpone county committee elections scheduled for 2020 or if party leaders should be permitted to extend their own terms.
‘I’m the titular head of the party, but I’m not running a particular party,” Murphy said. “It is their jurisdiction.”
The case was initially assigned to Judge James Pickering, a former Cape May County Democratic Chairman, and then to Judge Julio Mendez, a former Cumberland County Democratic Chairman.
Mendez had initially set a hearing date for April 16, which may have been too late. County clerks will hold their ballot drawings one week earlier and the ballots go to the printer several days before the hearing.
“Judge Savio’s ruling protects South Jersey’s democratic process and deals a blow to party bosses that for too long have ruled by fiat. It ensures that Democratic voters in Atlantic and Cape May counties get the opportunity to select their committee members at the ballot box. This ruling is a win for South Jersey’s Democratic voters, whose ability to choose the future direction of the party is protected,” Altman. “And it checks an unprecedented power grab by Atlantic and Cape May party bosses, under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic, to seize control from the voters to stifle a growing progressive movement. Political parties are not the playthings of special interests. They are accountable to the voters. And the voters must now get a chance to choose their own destinies.”