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Superior Court Judge Kit Dupuis in 1985 as the Democratic candidate for Westfield Town Council

Judge questions law on filling local government vacancies

Dupuis refuses immediate seating of Linden councilman-elect; issue headed to appellate court

By David Wildstein, February 16 2019 12:09 pm

New Jersey judges continue to be reliably unreliable when it comes to interpreting simple, frequently-used, state election laws.

A Superior Court judge in Union County this week refused to order the immediate installation of Paul Coates as a Linden city councilman.

The Linden Democratic organization submitted the names of Coates and two others to the city council as replacements for Michele Yamakaitis, who left her 8th ward seat on January 1 to become the new council president.

But mayor Derek Armstead, who doesn’t get along with the county committee, refused to accept any of the choices.  He said he wants the seat to remain vacant until a November special election.

Most longtime political observers know exactly what happens in that situation: the vacancy goes back to the county committee, who picks one of the three in what is effectively a special election.

The Linden Democrats picked Coates, but Armstead refuses to seat him.

That put the matter in court in what should be a slam-dunk.  After all, this happens ten or twenty times every year across the state.

Judge Katherine Regan Dupuis denied the request of Linden Democrat to order the city to seat Coates.  Instead, she set a hearing date in March – leaving the people of the 8th ward without representation on the city council.

Dupuis is no neophyte when it comes to this particular type of election law.

Back in 1985, Kit Dupuis was the Democratic candidate for Westfield Town Council against a Republican incumbent who had been appointed to fill a vacancy using the same law Coates is citing.

When councilman Harry Brown resigned to move to Virginia, the Westfield Republican county committee submitted three names – Jubb Corbet, Kenneth MacRitchie and Elizabeth Gorski – to the council.  The council voted 6-1 to pick Corbet; Richard Bagger, then a 24-year-old councilman, voted for Corbet.

That gave Corbet the benefit of incumbency when he faced Dupuis in a contest for the first ward council seat a few months later.

Corbet won the endorsement of a local newspaper, who said he had more experience.

“Dupuis, a lawyer, doesn’t have that background,” the editorial said.

Dupuis got smoked.

Corbet beat her by a 2-1 margin, 66%-34%.

She ran about 100 votes behind the Democratic candidate for Union County freeholder, Charlotte DeFilippo.

Dupuis went on to become the Westfield Democratic municipal chair.

After John Stamler passed away in 1990, Dupuis was one of the finalists Gov. Jim Florio considered for Union County prosecutor.

She didn’t get the job, but Florio nominated her to serve as a judge in 1992.

Dupuis’ opportunity to legislate a law that didn’t work to her advantage nearly 34 years ago might be out of her hands completely.

On Friday, the state appellate court granted emergent relief to the Linden Democrats.  Briefs are due on Tuesday.

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