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Independent Electricians and Electrical Contractors'' Association v. New Jersey Board of Examiners of Electrical Contractors

Decided: July 17, 1969.


For affirmance -- Chief Justice Weintraub and Justices Jacobs, Francis, Proctor, Hall and Haneman. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Hall, J.


This case, attacking the constitutionality of the Electrical Contractors Licensing Act of 1962, N.J.S.A. 45:5 A -1, et seq., is before us for the second time. In our first opinion, reported at 48 N.J. 413 (1967), we directed a remand to the trial court, which had previously upheld the act, for additional proofs and further findings by the judge.

We expressed doubt, on the scanty record made at the first trial, as to whether a rational relation existed between the statutory scheme and the public evil sought to be met, and determined that the Board was obligated to go forward with an affirmative factual presentation in support of the validity of the statute. The areas which particularly concerned us were specified in a series of questions set forth at the end of the opinion. 48 N.J., at 427-428.

On the remand the further presentation in support of the statute was largely undertaken by two contractors' associations who were permitted to intervene. Voluminous testimony was taken and the trial court once again held that the act was valid. Subsequently the statute was amended in certain important respects. L. 1968, c. 17. On oral argument, after the remand was returned to us, we granted leave to take additional testimony by way of depositions with respect to matters which were still unclear, and to file supplemental briefs.

While our first opinion fully treated the contentions of the parties and the relevant statutory provisions, we should review the pertinent aspects.

The act is regulatory in nature, providing for the statewide licensing of electrical contractors, as distinct from journeymen or master electricians, through defendant Board of Examiners. Plaintiffs concede the right of the state under the police power to assure the competency of electrical work through a licensing system because of the danger to life and property from faulty work. In other words, the existence of an actual or potential public evil is admitted. All parties agree that for a statutory licensing scheme to be valid, it must bear a rational relation to the evil sought to be guarded against. While it is axiomatic that the police power may not be invoked solely for the economic protection of particular individuals and groups, and that where the dominant purpose of legislation is to advance private interests under the guise of the general welfare it will be struck down, if in fact there appears an evil to the public health or welfare which a statute can fairly be considered to meet, and the means to the end are reasonable, then the legislative decision thereby embodied must be upheld, though private interests are incidentally served.

The attack here is by one segment of the electrical contracting industry, composed essentially of electricians employed in industry who also carry on small contracting businesses of their own on a part-time basis. Their claim

throughout has been, on substantive due process and equal protection grounds, that the act is a privately oriented measure for the benefit of full-time and larger contracting enterprises, represented by the intervenors, and that its purpose and effect is to restrict competition by the exclusion, at least to some extent, of the part-time contractor from the field. It is clear that the measure was originally sponsored by certain segments of the industry and that the matter of the public's protection from faulty electrical work was indeed secondary, beyond any gain to the public from the prohibition of separate municipal licenses previously required in some municipalities. While plaintiffs argue that the licensing scheme is not designed to meet the evil of faulty electrical work, their thrust is largely that it unduly restricts their right to engage in a lawful occupation. Further, it is to be noted that the constitutional attack waged here is broad based -- plaintiffs seeking to have the entire act declared void, or at least certain provisions -- and that the action is not directed toward individual relief because of alleged improper administration in particular instances.

The business regulated is that of "Electrical contractor", which is defined by N.J.S.A. 45:5 A -2(d) as "* * * a person [including an individual, firm, corporation or other legal entity, N.J.S.A. 45:5 A -2(e)] who engages in the business of contracting to install, erect, repair or alter electrical equipment for the generation, transmission or utilization of electrical energy * * *." The reach of the act is limited by certain exemptions specified in N.J.S.A. 45:5 A -18 (about which more later) and by regulation of the Board.*fn1

The licensing scheme has a dual aspect, provided for in N.J.S.A. 45:5 A -9(a). Before the electrical contracting business may be engaged in, the owning entity -- whether that entity be an individual proprietor, partnership or corporation -- must obtain a "business permit". This permit issues automatically when a "license" is secured from the Board by some individual -- proprietor, partner, corporate officer or employee of the owning entity -- "who is or will be actively engaged in the business for which a business permit is sought * * *." One licensee cannot qualify more than one entity for a business permit, but the statute does not expressly require more than one licensee per entity no matter how many workmen that entity may employ.

Initially a license could have been obtained in either of two ways. The first, which still exists, is by passing an examination given by the Board "to establish the competence and qualification of the applicant to perform and supervise the various phases of electrical contracting work", N.J.S.A. 45:5 A -9(b), which examination "shall cover such matters as the provisions of nationally recognized electrical installation safety standards and the theoretical and practical application of the same encountered in electrical work", N.J.S.A. 45:5 A -12. To be admitted to the examination, an applicant "shall have been employed or engaged in the business of electrical construction and installation or have equivalent practical experience for a period of not less than 5 years preceding the time of such application, or shall otherwise establish to the satisfaction of the board that [he] has the necessary educational background and experience to qualify to take the examination for a license." N.J.S.A. 45:5 A -9(b).

The second method of obtaining a license -- by far the most utilized to date (although the opportunity to take advantage of it has now expired) -- is under the "grandfather" clause, N.J.S.A. 45:5 A -10. This section provides that "any person who has been employed or engaged in the business of electrical contracting in this State for a period

of at least 6 years prior to the effective date of this act, and whose principal business for at least 2 years immediately preceding making of application * * * shall have been that of electrical contractor, shall be granted a license without examination; provided application should be made to the board on or before July 1, 1963 [later administratively extended for several months, we understand] and satisfactory proof is presented to said board of the applicant's fitness to engage in such business." The "satisfactory proof" included a description of the applicant's experience in the electrical contracting business and the listing of representative electrical contracts performed by him.

The issues that troubled us and that were noted in our first opinion, and as to which we directed further proofs and argument, fall into several categories. It is to be observed, in passing, that we must, of course, consider them, and the changes made by the 1968 amendment as well, in light of the judiciary's limited role in reviewing the validity of regulatory state legislation. As we previously recognized (48 N.J., at 423-424), courts cannot be concerned with the wisdom or policy underlying a statute; that is almost invariably solely within the legislative domain and responsibility. So with respect to plaintiffs' claims that various provisions of the act deny them both substantive ...

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