Century-Old Law Prohibits October Senate Election, Critics Argue In N.J. Supreme Court Briefs

The Record ( — Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Record

Critics of Governor Christie's decision to hold a special election in October to fill Frank Lautenberg's Senate seat told the New Jersey Supreme Court in briefs filed Monday that an obscure 1915 statute curtails the use of special elections over concerns about cost.

A coalition of progressive groups and individual Democrats — including a political ally of Christie's challenger — say the timing of the special election violates state law and that it should be moved to Nov. 5, when voters will cast ballots for governor and all 120 seats in the Legislature.

Democrats have said Christie's move was a politically motivated attempt to suppress turnout, particularly among Democrats who would be inclined to vote for his challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex. Christie, a Republican, is leading Buono in opinion polls.

The state Supreme Court allowed the case to go forward last week after a three-judge appellate panel ruled that Christie had authority to set the date for an election to replace Lautenberg, who died this month of complications from pneumonia.

Christie's opponents have based their latest legal argument on a 1915 special-election law that was passed in response to the federal constitutional amendment that first allowed for the direct election of U.S. senators. Senators had previously been chosen by state legislatures.

The law was designed, they argued in briefs filed Monday, to reduce the cost of replacing members of Congress who left office before their terms are up by scheduling the vote to coincide with the next general election.

"We really do believe we found a smoking gun," said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action, which has joined the suit opposing the Christie administration.

Salowe-Kaye said the law demonstrates "a very clear legislative intent" that requires the election to be held in November.

Somerset County Democratic Chairwoman Marguerite M. Schaffer, who brought the suit last week, echoed this argument in her brief. Schaffer has endorsed Buono in the gubernatorial election.

Christie has said that a pair of conflicting state laws made it difficult to choose a date for the election and that a special election in October would give voters a chance to quickly choose a permanent successor to Lautenberg.

A state Senate committee approved two bills Monday — both along party lines — that would affect Senate vacancies. One bill would move the date of this year's general election from Nov. 5 to Oct. 16 to coincide with the special Senate election.

The other would prohibit the governor from holding a special election to fill any future Senate vacancy. Instead, the governor would have to appoint someone until the seat is filled in a general election. The appointee would have to belong to the same political party as the person who previously held the seat.

Asked to comment on the bills, a Christie spokesman reiterated the administration's position that the special election was scheduled in accordance with state law.

Six candidates — four Democrats and two Republicans — have filed to run in the primary on Aug. 13. Newark Mayor Cory Booker is leading among Democrats in the polls, and former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan is expected to win the Republican nomination.

Jeffrey S. Chiesa, the former state attorney general whom Christie appointed to serve in the Senate until after the special election, is not seeking to serve out the rest of Lautenberg's term, which ends in January 2015.

A coalition of civil rights groups also filed briefs Monday accusing Christie of voter suppression, saying that holding two elections less than three weeks apart would create confusion.

The administration has until Tuesday morning to respond.

It's unclear how the high court will rule. Though the justices could make a decision on the merits of the case, they could also decide to punt on procedural grounds because they allowed Schaffer to bypass the normal appeals process.

Staff Writer Michael Linhorst contributed to this article.

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