Home>Highlight>Judge denies Sweeney bid to reclaim seat on redistricting commission

Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy hears arguments regarding former Senate President Steve Sweeney's removal from the Legislative Apportionment Commission. (Photo: David Wildstein for the New Jersey Globe).

Judge denies Sweeney bid to reclaim seat on redistricting commission

By Joey Fox, February 01 2022 5:56 pm

Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy today denied former Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford)’s application for injunctive relief to regain his seat on the Legislative Apportionment Commission, from which he was removed last week by state Democratic Party chairman LeRoy Jones Jr.

“The court finds that the plaintiff fails to establish any [reasons for relief], and the court does deny injunctive relief,” Lougy said in his ruling. In denying Sweeney’s request, the ruling affirmed that the members of the redistricting commissions essentially serve at the will of the state party chairs, and that other considerations like geographical representation don’t cancel out that power.

Sweeney, who was named to the redistricting commission in 2020 – long before he unexpectedly lost re-election last November – was reportedly removed due to fears from state Democrats that he would become a rogue agent on the commission. He was replaced by Laura Matos, the chair of the Pinelands Commission.

In his lawsuit filed on January 27, Sweeney argued that Jones did not have the authority to remove commissioners at will, and that the commission is required to adequately represent the state’s different geographical regions – a requirement which, by replacing a Gloucester County resident with a Monmouth County one, Sweeney argued Jones’ decision had flouted.

“Senator Sweeney’s removal undermines the representation of South Jersey’s Democratic voters,” Sweeney counsel Bill Tambussi said. “The cluster of Democratic commission members in the northeast, in the greater New York City metro area, does not adhere to the constitutional requirement and will affect 3 million people of southern New Jersey who will have no Democratic representation on the commission.”

Should the court find that Sweeney could be removed at will without any allegation of misconduct, Tambussi further argued, there would be nothing to prevent Jones from taking over the commission entirely, and at any point in the redistricting process.

“There is nothing, if this decision were to be upheld, that would preclude the state chair from deciding to remove commissioners – one, two, three, or all the commissioners – at any time, up until the map is certified,” he said.

Uzoma Nkwonta, acting as counsel for Jones, argued in response that the terms of redistricting commission members are not fixed, that there is no specific guarantee to geographic representation or equality, and that Jones fundamentally has the right to remove and appoint commission members if he so chooses. 

“When the court looks at the actual language of the constitution, and looks at these well-settled precedents, there’s no way around the fact that there is no fixed term, and there’s no way around the fact that the authority to remove Senator Sweeney is plenary,” Nkownta said.

Also at issue was a similar instance in 2010, when Orange Mayor Eldridge Hawkins Jr. was removed from the Congressional Redistricting Commission by Sweeney, who wanted to appoint his own commissioner to take Hawkins’ spot. Tambussi said that Hawkins’ removal happened long before the commission had begun its work and was thus an inapplicable scenario, but Nkwonta called such reasoning “distinctions without a difference.”

Joining Nkwonta in arguing against Sweeney’s request for injunctive relief was an array of attorneys representing the commission’s Republican and Democratic delegations, commission tiebreaker Philip Carchman, and Secretary of State Tahesha Way, who certified Matos’ appointment. All concurred that granting Sweeney’s request, and thus delaying the commission’s work, would constitute irreparable harm.

Ultimately, Lougy ruled against Sweeney on the merits, finding that the commission has no fixed terms or binding rules regarding geographical representation, and that the court has no obligation to involve itself in an intra-party dispute.

“Judicially imposed restrictions on party organization and procedures not imposed by the legislature or the constitution risk plunging the courts deep in the business of resolving intra-party controversies and factional strife, contrary to established principle of judicial restraint,” Lougy said.

Immediately following the hearing, the New Jersey Democratic State Committee (NJDSC) released a statement praising Lougy’s decision.

“It has always been clear that Chairman Jones’ decision to add Laura Matos to the Democratic delegation to the Legislative Apportionment Commission was in the best interests of the Democratic Party and that he had the absolute legal right to take that action,” NJDSC spokesman Phil Swibinski said. “We are grateful for today’s ruling affirming that.”

Lougy’s ruling came with a preemptive denial of a stay on the ruling; it’s not yet clear what steps, if any, Sweeney and Tambussi will take next. 

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