Home>Campaigns>Judge will decide if Pinkin should pay legal fees for candidates who challenged ballot draw cancellation

Middlesex County Clerk Nancy J. Pinkin. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

Judge will decide if Pinkin should pay legal fees for candidates who challenged ballot draw cancellation

By David Wildstein, May 26 2022 9:58 am

Two law firms who forced Middlesex County Clerk Nancy Pinkin to hold a ballot drawing for the June primary election are seeking over $22,000 in legal fees from the county.

Superior Court Judge Michael Toto will hold a hearing on Friday morning to decide if attorneys for off-the-line candidates in the Piscataway township council election and for GOP congressional candidate Rik Mehta can recoup their costs of challenging Pinkin’s decision.

Pinkin had spent a critical election planning week on a junket to Ireland and less than an hour after her plane landed at Newark Liberty International Airport, she abruptly cancelled a ballot drawing set for that afternoon.  She became the only county clerk in the state to not hold a drawing.

The three Piscataway candidates filed a lawsuit and Toto ordered Pinkin to hold the drawing immediately.

State law requires the government to pay legal fees expended in the enforcement of a plaintiff’s civil rights.

The lawsuit is potentially significant for candidates challenging party organizations in primaries.  It would allow off-the-line contenders to fight bullies without having to blow their entire campaign budget on lawyers.

Pinkin doesn’t want to pay.

“The court however did not enter a ruling as to the Democratic plaintiffs’ constitutional claims, only addressing their statutory interpretation claim that does not involve fees because the statute in question merely regulates ballot design and does not grant an individual right enforceable under the Civil Rights Act,” first deputy county counsel Niki Athanasopoulos wrote in a brief opposing the payment of legal fees.

Yael Bromberg, the attorney representing the Piscataway candidates, said that the county clerk’s opposition to the fee petition “would lead one to think that qualifying candidates, the voters who support them, and the voters at large, do not have a statutory right to a fair ballot draw, and by extension, fair ballot design and fair elections.”

“She argues that the guiding statute only contemplates the formatting of a ballot, as if that format has no relationship to the conduct of a fair election,” Bromberg wrote in a brief filed with the court.  “This case is a simple one – the rules are there for a reason and cannot be changed on a whim in order to try to drive a predetermined outcome.”

Bromberg maintains that the lawsuit to force a ballot draw “was necessary and not some quixotic tilting of windmills.”

“Indeed, a ballot draw which was otherwise cancelled was ordered by the Court,” Bromberg stated.

Bromberg is seeking $14,985 and Ronald Berutti, who represented Mehta, wants $8,450.   Athanasopoulos said that Berutti’ fees were excessive since he did not initiate the action.

It’s not clear if Toto will issue an immediate ruling on Friday, although there is some urgency to his timing.  If candidates are on the hook to pay their own legal fees, that might affect how they spend in the final days before the June 7 primary election.

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