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Joint Legislative Committee on Ethical Standards v. Perkins

Decided: June 5, 1981.

JOINT LEGISLATIVE COMMITTEE ON ETHICAL STANDARDS, STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
WILLIAM O. PERKINS, JR., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT



On appeal from Hudson County District Court.

Botter, King and McElroy. The opinion of the court was delivered by McElroy, J.A.D.

Mcelroy

This matter involves interpretation of the New Jersey Conflicts of Interest Law, N.J.S.A. 52:13D-12 et seq. , and, in particular, N.J.S.A. 52:13D-16 b. The pertinent part of this statute reads as follows:

b. No State officer or employee or member of the Legislature, nor any partnership, firm or corporation in which he has an interest, nor any partner, officer or employee of any such partnership, firm or corporation, shall represent, appear for, or negotiate on behalf of, or agree to represent, appear for or negotiate on behalf of, any person or party other than the State in connection with any cause, proceeding, application or other matter pending before any State agency; provided, however, this subsection shall not be deemed to prohibit a member of the Legislature from making an inquiry for information on behalf of a constituent, if no fee, reward or other thing of value is promised to, given to or accepted by the member of the Legislature, whether directly or indirectly nor shall anything contained herein be deemed to prohibit any such partnership, firm or corporation from appearing on its own behalf.

The essential facts are not in dispute. Defendant, who is, and during the period in question was, an attorney-at-law of this State was elected to the State Assembly in November 1975 for the usual term of office ending on January 10, 1978. During his tenure defendant on May 24, 1977 appeared at a hearing before the Division of Motor Vehicles in behalf of one Columbus Carter in a matter involving revocation of Carter's driving privileges. At the hearing he identified himself as a member of the Legislature and conducted cross-examination of a police officer as well as direct examination of Carter. Thereafter, on a letterhead of his law office he wrote to the Division of Motor Vehicles in regard to Carter's matter.

Complaint was made to the Joint Committee on Ethical Standards that defendant was in violation of N.J.S.A. 52:13D-16 b. That body held a hearing on April 17, 1978 at which defendant contended his appearance at the Carter hearing was permitted by subsection b because he was making an inquiry for information on behalf of a constituent for no fee, reward or other thing of value. The Joint Committee found defendant's contention lacking in merit, found him in violation of the conflicts statute by virtue of his appearance at Carter's hearing and by reason of

his subsequent letter of September 30, 1977 wherein he filed exceptions to the hearing officer's report. The Joint Committee levied a fine of $200 and held that it had jurisdiction to hear and resolve the matter because the violation had occurred during defendant's term of office. The findings of the Joint Committee and the requirement that defendant pay the fine to the Treasurer of the State of New Jersey were embodied in a resolution dated April 17, 1978. Defendant sought no relief from this determination and the imposition of a fine, nor did he pay the fine. As a result of defendant's inaction the Joint Committee, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 52:13D-22(j) and N.J.S.A. 2A:58-1 et seq. , sued defendant for collection of the fine. The matter was heard in the Hudson County District Court and resulted in a judgment against defendant.

Defendant in this appeal urges that (1) N.J.S.A. 52:13D-16 b violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution; (2) it offends the New Jersey Constitution because the activities punished have no connection to defendant's public duties or responsibilities; (3) the Joint Committee lacks power to punish an assemblyman because such power constitutionally lies solely with the entire Assembly and may not be delegated; (4) the statute sets no clear standards for punishment and (5) the Joint Committee lacked jurisdiction over defendant because at the time it considered his case he was no longer a member of the State Assembly. We reject these contentions and affirm the judgment entered below.

Defendant contends that the statute has "a chilling effect [ sic ] on attorneys who wish to be candidates for the legislature, but though specially trained in many areas relevant to the office, many are effectively excluded from the legislature." He also asserts:

The chilling effect of N.J.S.A. 52:13D-16b with respect to individuals who practiced law before administrative agencies and the ability of the legislature to suspend, sanction or remove one for violating that section has a profound implication upon not only the defendant's First Amendment right of freedom of expression, freedom of association, but implicates the defendant's constituents'

right to vote and right of political association. The statute would tend to reduce the field of candidates. If restrictions on the access to the ballot of potential candidates affect the fundamental right to vote, then dismissal of the voters' ...


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