A Superior Court Judge will decide whether Burlington County Democrats can fill a county commissioner vacancy even though they missed the statutory deadline to do so.
Increasingly, judges have faced criticism for allowing campaign deadlines to become fungible at a time when many Americans are questioning — sometimes unfairly — whether elections conducted with integrity.
“Judges are the first responders of free elections and our democracy,” said one North Jersey lawmaker, who did not want to be publicly identified. “We look to them to do the right thing and I worry that if they get it wrong, they’ll make the process look ridiculous.”
Republicans argue that the April 26 election of Allison Eckel was illegal because the deadline to fill Linda Hynes’ vacant seat was February 19 and Joe Andl, the Democratic county chairman, never called an election.
The GOP filed a lawsuit in March in a bid to stop Democrats from filling the post, but Judge John E. Harrington dismissed the case because it was “not ripe for adjudication at this time.” Republicans went back to court and filed a challenge. Harrington will hear arguments in court on Monday.
“It is always helpful to have some fresh guidance on when deadlines are deadlines and when they’re not.” said Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “Often judges will cite the liberally construed language in the statute to make sure voters have a choice, but voters won’t be deprived of a choice in this case.”
Political leaders from both parties have privately mocked an April decision by state Appellate Court Judge Hany Mawla to punt on a challenge to nominating petitions for the Democratic primary for Union County Commissioner and the Republican primary for Howell Township Council until after the June 7 primary.
Instead, Mawla scheduled the first round of briefs on primary ballot access to be filed on June 10 — three days after the election — with briefing completed by July 21.
One of the appeals has long-term ramifications.
Superior Court Judge Kathleen Sheedy allowed two Republican council candidates in Howell to get on the ballot by combining their petitions – each with less than they required 50 valid signatures – with a third candidate, even though only one name appeared on each petition.
“Sheedy screwed the pooch on that one,” a retired Superior Court judge who spoke on the condition of anonymity told the New Jersey Globe in April “In her defense, I don’t think she understood the issue.”
Ballots for the Paterson mayoral race were mailed nearly a month late after it took two appellate court judges, Mary Gibbons Whipple and Ronald Susswein, twelve days to make a decision on the eligibility of one of the candidates.
Complaints of sluggishness by judges is not universal. Some judges, like Alan Lesnewich, Ernest Caposela, Michael Toto, and U.S. District Court Judge Madeline Cox Arleo, moved at lightning speed to expedite election matters. (Arleo was willing to hear her case on the Passaic sheriff residency issue on the Saturday of Easter weekend.) A group of administrative law judges were assigned six petition challenges for congressional candidates on a Friday afternoon and began hearings early Monday morning. By Tuesday evening, they were done.
In some cases, the delay was not the judge’s fault. Stuart Minkowitz, the assignment judge in Morris County, heard a ballot case for the Rockaway Township GOP mayoral primary and chastised one of the attorneys for filing the matter in the wrong court and not properly noticing the other parties.
Just before Christmas, former New Jersey Supreme Court Justice John E. Wallace, Jr., the court-selected congressional redistricting tiebreaker, set off a firestorm when he said that he picked the Democratic map “simply because in the last redistricting map it was drawn by the Republicans.”