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Bonnett v. State

Decided: January 9, 1974.

HARRY BONNETT, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
STATE OF NEW JERSEY; WILLIAM T. CAHILL, GOVERNOR OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY; JOSEPH M. MCCRANE, JR., TREASURER OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY; RAYMOND H. BATEMAN, PRESIDENT OF THE NEW JERSEY STATE SENATE; THOMAS H. KEAN, SPEAKER OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY; ROBERT CLIFFORD, COMMISSIONER OF THE DEPARTMENT OF INSTITUTIONS AND AGENCIES OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY; AND EDWARD B. MCCONNELL, DIRECTOR OF THE ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICE OF THE COURTS OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS



Carton, Seidman and Demos. The opinion of the court was delivered by Seidman, J.A.D.

Seidman

Pursuant to leave granted, defendants appeal from the denial of their motion to dismiss the complaint.

Plaintiffs, who are residents and taxpayers of Essex County, filed a class action under R. 4:32-1 et seq. as representative parties of (1) owners of real property in the county, (2) black residents, (3) low-income residents, and (4) property owners "with lost or jeopardized equities." The nine-count complaint challenged the allegedly inequitable tax system in New Jersey insofar as it related to (1) categorical public assistance, (2) the courts, and (3) supporting agencies in the administration of justice.

The thrust of the complaint is that the individual plaintiffs, as well as the county and the municipalities within it, are unconstitutionally discriminated against by reason of a system whereby certain expenses are allocated for payment by real estate taxes assessed within the county, rather than allocated on an equal state-wide basis with a resultant disproportionate and inequitable burden on the residents of the county.

Subsequently, the League of Women Voters of New Jersey was permitted to intervene as a party plaintiff.

Defendants moved for a dismissal of the complaint on the ground that it failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The court below denied the motion, holding that an issue was raised whether there was "a reasonable or rational justification for the New Jersey system of providing welfare assistance and the judiciary, as required by the equal protection clause."

It is thoroughly established that in dealing with the legal sufficiency of a complaint "the plaintiff is entitled to to a liberal interpretation of its contents and to the benefits of all its allegations and the most favorable inferences which may be reasonably drawn from them." Rappaport v. Nichols, 31 N.J. 188, 193 (1959); Di Christofaro v. Laurel Grove Memorial Park, 43 N.J. Super. 244, 252 (App. Div. 1957); Winkler v. Hartford Acc. & Ind. Co., 66 N.J. Super. 22, 25 (App. Div. 1961). See also P & A Const. Inc. v. Hackensack Water Co., 115 N.J. Super. 550, 551 (Law Div. 1971); Young v. Gilbert, 121 N.J. Super. 78, 82 (Law Div. 1972).

While defendants do not question this rule, they argue that the recent cases of San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 93 S. Ct. 1278, 36 L. Ed. 2d 16 (1973), and Robinson v. Cahill, 62 N.J. 473 (1973), decided after the disposition of the motion below, are controlling and mandate a reversal and a dismissal of the complaint. We do not agree.

We recognize from Rodriguez that in determining the validity under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of a state's statutory scheme for the local financing of public services which results in substantial disparities in per capita expenditures because of variations in the amount of local taxable properties, the standard of review is not that of strict judicial scrutiny requiring a showing of compelling state interest, unless fundamental constitutional rights are involved. 411 U.S. at 16, 93 S. Ct. at 1287, 36 L. Ed. 2d at 33. Rather, the standard is that the system be shown to bear some rational relationship to a legitimate state purpose. 411 U.S. at 40, 93 S. Ct. at 1300,

36 L. Ed. 2d at 47; and, if it does, the Fourteenth Amendment does not require absolute equality or precisely equal advantage. 411 U.S. at 24, 93 S. Ct. at 1291, 36 L. Ed. 2d at 37, U.S. Const., Amend. 14.

To this extent, Robinson v. Cahill, supra, is in accord; but as our Supreme Court observed, Rodriguez does not say that there could never be a successful equal protection attack where a State has called upon local government to participate in the rendition of a public service. 62 N.J. at 488. The court in Robinson v. Cahill chose not to rest its decision on the equal protection concept of either the Federal or the State Constitution, but relied, instead, on the public education provision of the State Constitution. N.J. Const. (1947), Art. VIII, ยง 4, par. 1. It pointed out, however, that even though there might not ...


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