Charles Dudley Warner wrote, “Politics make strange bedfellows.” When a candidate who violated campaign finance laws is joined in a lawsuit by the agency in charge of enforcing against such violations, politics must be involved.
In November, I wrote about the debacle in the Republican primary election for freeholder in Morris County, New Jersey. At that time, a Superior Court judge overturned 23-year-old Hank Lyon’s 6-vote victory over incumbent Margaret Nordstrom in the June primary election. Judge Weisenbeck found that Lyon violated New Jersey campaign finance laws when he failed to submit certain donations and expenditures to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), and voided the primary election in favor of a party convention to choose the nominee. The convention selected Nordstrom, who went on to victory in the November general election before Lyon’s appeal could be heard.
Just prior to the election, the Appellate Division granted ELEC permission to intervene as a respondent to the lawsuit. (Non-lawyers: this means the court allowed ELEC to join the pre-existing lawsuit as a party that can claim an interest in the case which will not undermine the original suit). ELEC argued that Judge Weisenbeck overstepped his jurisdiction and that the agency should resolve election disputes such as this.
When we last left off, the Lyon-ELEC appeal was yet to be decided and Nordstrom had won reelection as freeholder.
Last month, on February 7, the Appellate Division sided with ELEC (link to PDF decision) and found that the agency has exclusive jurisdiction over reporting violations due to “overarching legislative goals” such as transparency, efficiency, and uniformity in the implementation of remedies. The Superior Court should have transferred the contribution claims to ELEC and decided only the issue of voter fraud alleged by Nordstrom (though the Appellate Division also ruled that any fraud, if it had occurred, was not significant enough to have changed the outcome of the June primary). According to the opinion, Weisenbeck shouldn’t have voided the primary election.
Lyon had hoped the court would rule he should be the next freeholder and install him into office. The Appellate Division refused to go that far, opting instead to boot Nordstrom from office and declare the freeholder seat vacant. The court also decided that the Republican Party should hold a convention to elect an interim freeholder until a general election could be held in November.
In a statement (PDF), ELEC Executive Director Jeff Brindle claimed to be “delighted with the decision,” and explained that the Appellate Division’s decision upheld ELEC’s mandate to investigate violations and determine remedies.
The question still remains: who gets to hold the seat in the interim? The Morris County Republican Party is set to hold a convention to choose the interim freeholder. Lyon believes that he’ll be voted in since he should have been the original nominee. Truscha Quatrone, the Democrat defeated by Nordstrom in November, claims that since Nordstrom was retroactively disqualified, she should hold the seat; afterall, Quatrone earned the second-most votes. Morris County Clerk Joan Bramhall has asked the Appellate Division to approve a ballot for the November election pitting Lyon against Quatrone, removing the need for party primaries over the summer. Some NJ legal experts see this case reaching the New Jersey Supreme Court. Nordstrom, however, has stated that she will not appeal the Appellate Division’s decision.
This blogger sees a few points that this ongoing event illuminates about elections:
(1) Follow the rules. If Lyon had followed the contribution regulations, perhaps this fight wouldn’t have started (thought it could also be argued Lyon would have lost the primary but for his illegal $16K). Lyon claimed at the time that the regulations were difficult to read, but, as readers of this blog are aware, this is why it’s a good idea to seek legal counsel in an election before you get yourself into trouble.
(2) Elections display an array of stakeholders and demonstrate their complex relationships to each other and the public at large. Candidates and their supporters demand recognition while agencies seek to uphold their legislative mandates and courts aim to uphold the rule of law. Elections put citizens in the intersection of the branches of their government. Here, a group of appointed officials (the Appellate Division) ruled that another appointed official (Superior Court Judge Weisenbeck) encroached on the authority of yet another group of appointed officials (ELEC) by ruling on the fate of would-be elected officials. It’s understandable why some people are upset.
(3) Warner’s aphorism originated from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” There’s probably a good argument to be made that misery and politics are synonyms. For now, that certainly seems to be the case.
Kevin Elliker is a first-year student at William and Mary Law.