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Saunders v. Toms River Regional Schools Bd. of Educ.

March 27, 1996


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean County.

Approved for Publication March 27, 1996.

Before Judges A.m. Stein, Kestin and Cuff. The opinion of the court was delivered by Cuff, J.A.D. A.m. Stein, J.A.D, Dissenting.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cuff

The opinion of the court was delivered by CUFF, J.A.D.

This appeal and cross-appeal requires us to determine the application and interpretation of a newly-enacted statute governing school elections. As an election action, we have accelerated the Disposition of this matter. R. 1:2-5(1); 2:11-1(a).

Plaintiff George Saunders appeals from an order dismissing his complaint which challenged the action of defendant Toms River Regional Schools Board of Education striking the nominating petition of Angela Davis. In its cross-appeal, defendant asserts that this dispute is properly before the Commissioner of Education.

On February 26, 1996, the fiftieth day before the April 16 school board elections and the last day for filing of petitions, a nominating petition with the minimum ten signatures endorsing Angela Davis as a candidate representing South Toms River on the defendant regional school board was filed with defendant. On February 28, 1996, the Board Secretary sent a letter to Ms. Davis which informed her that her name would not appear on the ballot because one of the signers to the nominating petition was not a registered voter. On March 4, Susan Johnson, the previously unregistered voter, registered to vote.

This matter was commenced by way of an order to show cause on March 7, 1996 in the Law Division of the Superior Court. Plaintiff, *fn1 another signer of the Davis nominating petition, argues that the recently enacted statute which substantially amends the law governing the conduct of school board elections, L. 1995, c. 278, is the operative law. He further contends that defendant failed to comply with the procedures of section 7 of this statute in that the filed petition was in apparent conformity with the requirements of the statute, and defendant has not acted on any written objection as required by law. By order dated March 20, 1996, Judge Frank Buczynski dismissed the Complaint. In his oral decision, the trial Judge held that the dispute was governed by L. 1995 c. 278, § 7 rather than N.J.S.A. 18A:14-1 to 104; therefore, he rejected defendant's position that the Law Division lacked jurisdiction to hear the matter. In a separate oral decision, he held that the defect in the Davis nominating petition was substantive and not subject to cure up to the 44th day before the election. Therefore, he found that defendant properly invalidated the Davis nominating petition.

We affirm the March 20, 1996 order entered by Judge Buczynski substantially for the reasons set forth in his oral decisions of the same date. We add the following comments.

On December 15, 1995, L. 1995 c. 278 was approved. The general purpose of this bill is to increase voter participation and confidence in school elections by conforming the school election process to the general election process. To that end, the statutory provisions governing primary and general elections are applicable to school elections, except to the extent that the school elections require different treatment. L. 1995, c. 278, § 7. One of the consequences of this amendment is to transfer disputes arising from the administration and application of this school election process from the Commissioner of Education to the Superior Court. Id.; see also Assembly State Government Committee, Statement to Assembly, No. 1705 (1994).

In order to resolve the jurisdictional issue, we must examine whether the legislation is to be applied prospectively, or retroactively. The bill as originally enacted by the Legislature provided that it would be effective 180 days after enactment. See Assembly Bill No. 1705 (Second Reprint 1995). In her conditional veto message, Governor Whitman specifically noted that "in order for the bill to apply to the 1996 school elections, I also recommend that the effective date of the legislation be changed to allow for application to the April 1996 school election." The Governor suggested that the bill be effective 90 days after enactment. Acting in apparent conformity with the Governor's message, the Legislature reenacted the bill, A-1705 (Third Reprint 1995), with the requested change. Thus the bill, signed on December 15, 1995 became effective on March 15, 1996.

Since the effective date of the bill fell in the midst of the 1996 school election process, defendant argues that the prior statute, N.J.S.A. 18A:14-1 to 104, must govern this election and this dispute concerning the Davis nominating petition must be referred to and resolved by the Commissioner of Education pursuant to the terms of N.J.S.A. 18A:6-9. Defendant concedes that, if the statute is applied retroactively, the Law Division of the Superior Court had jurisdiction of this matter. See L. 1995, c. 278, §§ 7 and 24. *fn2

In ascertaining whether a statute should be applied prospectively or retroactively, we must determine the intent of the Legislature. State, Dep't of Envtl. Protection v. Ventron Corp., 94 N.J. 473, 498 (1983). Generally, courts favor prospective application of statutes. Gibbons v. Gibbons, 86 N.J. 515, 521, 432 A.2d 80 (1981). This rule is founded on the premise that fundamental fairness requires that citizens be given notice of a statute so that they may conform their behavior to the new or revised requirements. Id. at 522; 2 Norman J. Singer, Sutherland Statutory Construction § 41.02 (5th ed. 1992). Retroactive application promotes insecurity and may implicate due process rights. Ventron, supra, 94 N.J. at 498-99.

The rule favoring prospective application, however, is only a rule of statutory interpretation, which is utilized to discern legislative intent. When the Legislature expresses its intent, either explicitly or implicitly, that a statute is to be applied retroactively, the general rule must yield to the specific intent of the Legislature. Twiss v. State, Dept. of Treasury, 124 N.J. 461, 467, 591 A.2d 913 (1991); Strube v. ...

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