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NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION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 opinion revises and replaces the opinion released on October 15, 2004. In that earlier opinion we held, in part, that the screening process utilized by defendant, the Sayreville Democratic Organization, to select the person who will run under the party's banner in the local primary election, violated the provisions of N.J.S.A. 19:34-52. Thereafter, defendant moved for reconsideration arguing that N.J.S.A. 19:34-52 has been rendered unconstitutional by virtue of the United States Supreme Court decision in Eu v. San Francisco County Democratic Central Comm., 489 U.S. 214, 109 S.Ct. 1019, 103 L.Ed. 2d 271 (1989), with respect to a similar California statute. After a careful review of the authority cited, we agree.
Before we begin our analysis, we are compelled to address the steps that led to this unusual outcome. This case was fully briefed by the parties and argued before us by appellate counsel from both sides. In the course of oral argument, we specifically requested counsel to address the legality of the screening process utilized by defendant, in light of the clear injunction against it in N.J.S.A. 19:34-52. No one at that time, or at any other time prior to the release of our earlier decision, questioned the constitutionality of this statute.
It hardly bears stating that attorneys have a duty to bring to the attention of the court any legal authority that impacts, directly or indirectly, on the legal issues before it. There is no more important or dispositive source of legal authority than decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States. Having said that, we do not absolve ourselves from responsibility. We, as judges, also have a duty to independently research the issues in an effort to discover any authority that supports or undermines our rulings.
With this as a backdrop, we now address the business at hand. As we said in our earlier decision, 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.
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 ...