The Star-Ledger

Groups Claim To Have Found 'Smoking Gun' To Force Christie To Move U.S. Senate Election To November

The Star-Ledger — Monday, June 17, 2013

By Matt Friedman / The Star-Ledger

TRENTON — Two liberal groups say they've found a "smoking gun" in a century-old state law that could force Gov. Chris Christie to schedule the general election in November.

New Jersey Citizen Action and New Jersey Communities United in a brief today, told the state Supreme Court today that the state's 1915 law on filling U.S. Senate vacancies said that unless the vacancy occurred shortly before the next general election, it should be filled at the closest general election.

The purpose, according to drafters of the original law, was to "avoid the expenses of special elections for United States Senators and Congressmen."

The brief is meant to aid the case of Democrats who are challenging Christie's decision to call a special election in October to fill the late US. Sen. Frank Lautenberg's (D-N.J.) seat. The Democrats, led by Somerset County Democratic Chairwoman Peg Schaffer, want the election held in November to coincide with the gubernatorial race.

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, called the finding a "smoking gun" that means "you can't do just what the governor's doing."

The law, according to a lawyer for the groups, is the predecessor of two more recent statutes that conflict on how to fill vacancies. As such, it shows what the Legislature meant the more recent laws to mean.

"You have to look to legislative intent," said the lawyer, Steven Weissman. "The clearest expression in legislative intent here is the 1915 bill which said they wanted to avoid the expenses of special election. That's why they drafted this language."

The 1915 law was a response to the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which mandated direct election of U.S. senators. Before that, state legislatures chose U.S. senators.

A state appellate court last week tossed out Schaffer's challenge, saying New Jersey gives Christie "broad authority" to call a special election. Schaffer is asking the Supreme Court to hear the case.

The liberal groups' brief says that the 1915 law made clear that the governor should only be able to call a special election if the Senate vacancy occurs within 70 days of the next scheduled general election because the Legislature wanted to save money.

"The Legislature intended for a replacement of the vacancy at the next general election as a mandatory requirement — not a discretionary one," the brief reads. "...The Legislature never intended the governor to have the discretion to call a special election when filling the seat at the next general election is eminently feasible."

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