Home>Highlight>Supreme Court says Linden erred in barring appointed city councilman from being sworn in

Nicholas Scutari, right, administers the oath of office to Linden councilman Paul Coates

Supreme Court says Linden erred in barring appointed city councilman from being sworn in

Albin’s final decision says political parties get final say on filling vacancies if governing bodies decline to pick one of the candidates

By David Wildstein, July 06 2022 10:04 am

The new Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the city of Linden should have allowed the Democratic county committee to fill a city council vacancy in 2019, reversing an appellate court ruling.

The ruling comes more than three years after Linden refused to seat Paul Coates, who had been appointed by local Democrats to fill a vacant seat.

“The members of the City Council, as well as the mayor, had no lawful authority to deny Coates a seat on the Council or to deprive the citizens of the 8th ward their right of representation in their municipal government,” the court opined.  “The city council did not have the authority to keep the 8th ward council seat vacant for ten months until the next general election.”

The decision, authored by Justice Barry Albin and released on his final day on the bench, was unanimous.  It said that the “clear intent” of the statute was for the vacant council seat to have been filled.

The legal battle began in early 2019, when Michele Yamakaitis resigned her 8th ward city council seat to take office as council president, a post she won in the 2018 general election.

The Linden Democratic county committee submitted three names to the city to fill the vacant seat: Coates, Cynthia Apalinski and Aaron Howard,

But Mayor Derek Armstead, who was feuding with now-Senate President Nicholas Scutari, refused to pick anyone, saying he would rather the seat remain vacant until the next election.

Linden Democrats — Scutari was the Linden Democratic municipal chairman at the time – picked Coates, a bail bondsman, to fill the vacancy under a long-standing state law that allowed the vacancy to revert back to the local political party.

Armstead and the city council, where his allies held a majority of the seats, refused to seat him.

Coates sued the city, and in May 2019, a Superior Court ruled his favor, ordering him to be sworn in.

Coates went on to lose a primary for the seat a month later against a Armstead ally, Garnett Blaine, but was awarded $110,236 in legal fees after a protracted court battle.   It will forever be unclear whether Coates might have held his seat if he had the advantages of incumbency from the start of the year.

The Supreme Court noted that the case “revealed the factional strife within the Democratic Party in Linden and, more particularly, the conflict between the Linden City Council and the Linden Democratic Committee.”

“Members of the city council made clear in their remarks that they did not want to be limited to the Democratic Committee’s nominees when a vacancy arose on the Council,” the Albin opinion stated.  “However, the vacancy law sets forth the procedures for filling vacancies to avoid the very scenario that occurred here — the governing body refusing to seat a nominee of a faction of a party, thus denying the citizens of a ward representation in their municipal government.”

Last August, a state appellate court ruled in favor of Linden, overturning the Superior Court Judge’s decision.  The presiding judge, Carmen Messano, determined that if the governing body doesn’t like the names submitted by the political party, they can opt to simply allow the seat to remain vacant until the next election.

The decision surprised longtime political observers who had seen the process of a county committee submitted three names and the council picking one of them.  If they didn’t, it reverted back to the county committee to make the choice.

Superior Court Judge Katherine Regan Dupuis denied the request of Linden Democrat to order the city to seat Coates.  Instead, she forced a protracted court battle that left 8th ward residents without a city council representative.

At one point in 2019, it looked as though the two sides had reached a settlement.  The city council called a special meeting to approve the measure, but it was unexpectedly defeated.

Dupuis was no neophyte when it comes to 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.

Coates was represented by Louis Rainone and David Minchello of Rainone Coughlin Minchello.

Linden Court Decision
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