October 15, 2004; See amended opinion filed November 18, 2004
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Docket No. L-2164-04.
Before Judges Kestin,*fn1 Lefelt, and Fuentes.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fuentes, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued September 28, 2004
This case is a textbook example of local intra-party squabbles. It is also a vivid reminder that, like sausages, our democratic political process is best appreciated when viewed as a finished product. With this admonition in mind, we will now address the legal issues involved.
N.J.S.A. 19:34-52 prohibits a political party from endorsing candidates prior to any primary election. This appeal requires us to determine whether a"screening" process utilized by defendant, Sayreville Democratic Organization, to select the person who will run under the party's banner in the local primary election, violates this clear statutory injunction. After a careful review of the record, we conclude that it does.
The facts from which this issue arises are not in dispute. Plaintiff, Phyllis Batko, is a local political figure in Sayreville. She was a registered Democrat from 1978 to 1997. In 1996, she ran unsuccessfully as a Democratic candidate for a seat on the Borough Council. This defeat apparently prompted her to switch to the Republican party in 1997. Thereafter, she again ran for membership in the Borough Council, this time as a Republican, but was once again defeated.
Although not entirely clear from the record, Batko apparently remained a registered Republican for the next three years. In November 2000, she launched a third bid for a seat on the Council, her second as a Republican, and was elected for a three-year term. Her allegiance to the Republican party proved to be short lived. On April 12, 2002, before completing her term as a Republican member of the Council, Batko switched back to the Democratic party.
In March 2003, as Borough Council elections approached, plaintiff intended to stand for re-election as a Democrat. She thus requested the right to participate in defendant's"screening process." According to plaintiff's complaint,"screening" is the method"whereby a candidate for a position as a Democratic candidate in the Primary Election is interviewed and selected or not selected by the Sayreville Democratic Party to run as a candidate [in the primary election]." At oral argument before us, counsel for defendant described this process as a means of selecting the individual who will run under the"party line" on the ballot. That is, through this screening process, the local organization*fn2 selects the individual whose name will appear directly under the Sayreville Democratic Organization's banner in the voting machine.
Defendant denied plaintiff's March 2003 request to be screened. According to defendant, under the bylaws existing at the time, plaintiff was not qualified to participate in the screening process because she had not been a registered Democrat for at least two years preceding the screening. Article XII, ¶ 4 of the bylaws reads as follows:
No person shall have his or her name placed in nomination for any election, endorsement or otherwise by the Sayreville Democratic Municipal Committee unless such person shall have been a registered Democrat for at least two (2) years, and shall have first submitted, in writing to the Secretary, his or her willingness to accept the duties and responsibilities of such office or endorsement, and shall appear personally at such meeting or meetings as the Committee may direct (unless physically unable to do so). [Emphasis added.]
Plaintiff alleges that, in a previous legal challenge, the Law Division found the emphasized language cited above to be ambiguous. According to plaintiff, faced with this ambiguity, the trial court entered an order refusing to enforce these restrictions and allowing her to be screened by the party for the 2003 municipal primary election.*fn3
We cannot ascertain from the record here whether plaintiff was screened and, if so, selected as defendant's candidate in the primary and thereafter ran for re-election in the 2003 general election as a Democrat. We can infer, however, that regardless of party affiliation, ...