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Judge Ernest M. Caposela in his courtroom on April 18, 2018. Photo by Nikita Biryukov

Judge rules County Clerk didn’t understand election law

Caposela strikes down Morris County Committee policy

By Nikita Biryukov, April 19 2018 1:38 pm

A Passaic County Judge has ruled that the Morris County practice of allowing political parties to decide how many signatures are needed to run for county committee is illegal, but all seven of the challenged candidates will be allowed to run this year, since fault for the deficiencies with their petitions were at least partly caused by bad advice from the offices of the local and county clerks.

“I view it as a total victory,” said Chris Corsini, an attorney for Vincent La Iaconna III, who filed the challenges. “In New Jersey election law cases, it’s very typical for a judge to fashion an equitable remedy in favor of the candidate, in favor of ballot access.”

The petitions of Catherine Dachisen, Ingrid Sceusi, Sean Connolly and Rockaway Republican Club president Raymond Tahan were challenged because they did not have enough signatures required under New Jersey Law, while the petitions of Paul Waldeck, Susanne Jackson and Joseph Jackson were challenged on technical deficiencies.

John Iaciofano, an attorney for the Rockaway Township Clerk, also saw the decision in a favorable light.

“The overall view of the law in New Jersey is you don’t disenfranchise someone unless you absolutely have to,” Iaciofano said, echoing arguments he made at court the previous day. “The bottom line for me is Judge Caposela is a very studious, very careful guy. I think he reached the right thing both as a matter of law and a matter of equity.”

The ruling made by Passaic County Superior Court Judge Ernest Caposela is a blow to a long-standing Morris County practice of allowing political parties to set the number of signatures needed to appear on the ballot as a candidate for county committee.

Since 1994, the Morris County clerk has allowed Republican candidates for county committee to appear on the ballot with five signatures, while requiring one for Democratic candidates.

The county committees voted to have candidates require their respective number of signatures in 1994, and the county clerk’s office has abided by those decisions ever since. Earlier this year, Laura Roberts, the elections manager at the Morris County Clerk’s office, sent a memo advising local clerks in the county of the now-illegal policy.

In his ruling, Caposela said that Morris County Clerk Ann Grossi “administered a memorandum that runs counter to the relevant state statutes.”

“The error was not the fault of the prospective candidates,” Caposela opined.

Caposela also said that Gianattasio failed in her statutory obligation to notify candidates of their petition deficiencies.

County committee candidates in Morris County will follow the will follow the same rules as New Jersey’s 20 other counties in future elections. Under state election law, the minimum number of petition signatures required to run for county committee is set at no less than 5% of the total votes cast in the most recent State Assembly primary district – no less than one, but no more than 10.

Alan Zakin, an attorney for the Morris County Clerk’s office declined to comment until he could speak with his clients and directed questions to county communications director Larry Ragonese, who did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.

The three candidates whose petitions had technical difficulties were allowed to move forward because the Rockaway township clerk never notified them of the errors.

On April 11, acting Rockaway Township Clerk Marcy Gianattasio was in Trenton taking the Registered Municipal Clerk exam, which for reasons that thoroughly perplexed Iaciofano had been scheduled for the same day that candidate petitions had to be certified.  Gianattasio was also out of the office on the two previous days to study for the exam.

“I’m also really pleased that, as to the three candidates that were affected by technical petition deficiencies, that he accepted my logic that this was the result of an unfortunate confluence of circumstances in the clerk’s office of Rockaway Township,” Iaciofano said.

Any of the parties could still appeal the judge’s decision, but such an appeal would likely prove unsuccessful. Courts in New Jersey tend to provide as much access as they can in these cases, and the Morris County Clerk’s office has to send ballots out to the printer today so it can begin mailing ballots to U.S. service members and citizens abroad.

The case was moved to Passaic County because one of the candidates whose petition is being challenged is the wife of a Superior Court Judge who sits in Morris.

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One thought on “Judge rules County Clerk didn’t understand election law

  1. Read the Supreme Court decision from California that if challenged would strike down Title 19 in New Jersey that the State doesn’t have the right to mandate political party rules. Basically the Supreme Court ruled that political parties are like the Elks Club or the Rotary Club or any other organization. It’s not part of government and is ruled by their Constitution not any laws.

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