Home>Articles>Judges cover their tuchuses in Howell election case, allowing candidates to cure petition defect

New Jersey Appellate Court Judge Hany Mawla. (Photo: New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts).

Judges cover their tuchuses in Howell election case, allowing candidates to cure petition defect

Judge was wrong to allow merging of single petitions, but post-deadline certification by signatories is acceptable, appellate court rules

By David Wildstein, September 16 2022 10:02 am

Candidates filing joint petitions for some public offices in New Jersey must still list each individual name on nominating petitions but may combine separate petitions into one to meet the minimum number of signatures needed to get on the ballot by submitting a certification that says all signatories intended to support each of the candidates, a state appellate court has ruled.

The appellate judges said that Superior Court Judge Kathleen Sheedy got it wrong when she allowed two Republican candidates for the Howell Township Council who did not get the required 59 signatures to run in the June primary by other candidates effectively sharing signatures they had received on petitions bearing just one name.

“The trial judge’s finding the petitions were properly aggregated would constitute a reversible error,” the three appellate judges — Mary Gibbons Whipple, Hany A. Mawla and Morris Smith – wrote in their decision.

“Even utilizing a liberal interpretation, this statutory provision cannot be read to mean the submission of a petition bearing an adequate number of signatures for Candidate A, without more, would suffice to nominate Candidate B who did not obtain the requisite signatures,” they said.

But they did not agree with the Howell Democrat who brough the appeal, John Hughes, who claimed that the Republicans violated state election law by adding new signatures after the deadline because of all of the signers had signed at least one of the petitions.

“The signatures on the affidavits of confirmation the judge ordered (Howell municipal clerk Allison) Ciranni to verify did not add names to the original petitions, but instead were the names of fifty-five of the original signatories, who confirmed their intent to nominate  (Fred) Gasior, (Susan) Fischer, and (Ian ) Nadel,” the judges stated.

“As the trial judge noted, the evidence shows the signatures were obtained and presented for purposes of nominating Gasior, Fischer, and Nadel as a slate, the petitions were a group, and therefore had sufficient signatures,” Whipple, Mawla and Smith found.

They found that Sheedy did not violate the statute by allowing an “unlawful amendment to the petitions.”

“Our election laws are interpreted to preserve the two-party system and to submit to the electorate a ballot bearing the names of candidates of both major political parties,” Whipple, Mawla and Smith wrote.

The also found no evidence of fraud or manipulation in the petition signing process.

The decision ends the legal controversy over the Howell petitions, which began in April when Gasior and Fischer, who each circulated their own petitions, failed to secure 50 valid signatures.  But they were saved by Nadel, who had enough to qualify on their own, after GOP municipal chairman Joseph DiBella combined the three into one slate running on the organization line.

In the primary, Nadel, Fischer and Gasior defeated a lone off-the-line candidate by a wide margin.

Part of the frustration in Howell was caused by a sluggish judiciary who punted an appeal of Sheedy’s ruling that was filed in April until September, after the primary had already been held.

The judges addressed why they initially stayed Sheedy’s ruling and ordered an emergent appeal, only to change their minds later.

“We granted plaintiff’s request to file an emergent appeal and entered temporary restraints to permit briefing and plaintiff to obtain a transcript of the trial judge’s findings for our review,”  they said.  “Following our review, we dissolved the temporary restraints because plaintiff did not meet the … factors and ordered the matter to be heard in the normal courses.”

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