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New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner speaks at Seton Hall Law School in 2019. (Photo: Seton Hall University).

N.J. Supreme Court dismisses GOP lawsuit on congressional redistricting

In unanimous decision, justices say there was no constitutional basis to reject Democratic map

By David Wildstein, February 03 2022 11:28 am

The New Jersey Supreme Court has dismissed a legal challenge from Republicans over congressional redistricting, declining to accept a GOP argument that tiebreaker John E. Wallace Jr. flubbed his role in the process.

“No count in the complaint, however, asserts that the final map itself is unlawful or that it is the result of invidious discrimination,” the order said, noting that the Republican lawsuit does “not challenge the constitutionality of the map.”

The order paves the way for the new map to be implemented for the 2022 mid-term elections.  The new map, reflecting 2020 U.S. Census numbers, helps three Democratic incumbents – Reps. Andy Kim (D-Moorestown), Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff) and Mikie Sherrill (D-Montclair) – but puts a fourth Democratic congressman, Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes) in a district that appears to favor the Republicans.

The Court said that the private meetings held outside public view created no record of how Wallace made his decision.

“There is also no traditional record to measure any findings against because the key work of the commission takes place behind closed doors with no record of its discussions,” the order stated.

Republicans had asked the Court to vacate the map they approved on December 22 after Wallace initially said he voted for the Democratic map only because the Republican map had been picked ten years earlier.

That created an early furor that led Chief Justice Stuart Rabner to order Wallace to “amplify” his reasons for voting for the Democratic map.   The justices, in their order, appear to have found Wallace’s amplification acceptable.  But the order said the justices “do not rely on the Chair’s amplified statement,” except to establish that it met the constitutional standard for competitiveness.

“This Court has no role in the outcome of the redistricting process unless the map is ‘unlawful,” the order stated.

The order issued by the top court on Thursday was unanimous, with two Republican justices, Anne Patterson and Lee Solomon, voting with two Democratic justices and Judge Julio Fuentes, who has been assigned to the Supreme Court on a temporary basis.

Justices Faustino Fernandez-Vina and Fabiana Pierre-Louis, who was a law clerk to Wallace when he served on the state Supreme Court, did not participate in the ruling.

The court also rejected claims of due process and the appearance of conflicts created by campaign contributions from and to Wallace’s wife, former Washington Township Mayor Barbara Wallace, saying the GOP should have raised those objections earlier.

“They did not object to the chair’s participation until after he selected the other side’s map,” the order said.  On those facts, a strong argument can be made that plaintiffs waived their conflict claim.”

And the court rejected claims that the process was tainted by ties to major Democratic donors to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which served as advisors to Wallace.

“The Constitution does not bar the selection of a person who has contributed to a political campaign or a partisan political group, or whose spouse has done so, as the independent member,” the justices wrote.  “We therefore find no disqualifying conflict.”

The Court said that it is “vital that the public have confidence in the commission’s important work.

“Questions of partisanship or the appearance of partisanship can affect the public’s confidence, yet our current system is designed to be overseen by twelve partisan members and a thirteenth member whom the party delegations propose.,” the Court wrote.  “Two highly respected individuals were recommended for that role.”

The Supreme Court picked Wallace, the Democratic candidate, over the Republican choice, former Superior Court Judge Marina Corodemus.  But they court never amplified its reasons for picking Wallace and did not release a vote tally on their choice.

In their order, the Court appears to have hinted that New Jersey’s redistricting process might be due for an overhaul.

“There are other ways to conduct the redistricting process,” the justices stated. “A number of states, including California, Arizona, Michigan, and Colorado, have created independent redistricting commissions that include citizens with no party affiliation, in order to ‘increase the degree of separation between map-drawers and partisan politics.’”

Republicans have not yet decided if they will appeal the map to the federal courts.

R-3-21 Supreme Court Order 2022-02-03
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