Judge rejects Sweeney bid to get back onto NJ redistricting panel
TRENTON – A state Superior Court judge Tuesday denied a bid by former Senate President Steve Sweeney to be reinstated to a position on the panel that is redrawing the boundaries of New Jersey’s 40 legislative districts.
Sweeney, D-Gloucester, didn’t have to lose his spot on the Apportionment Commission as a consequence of losing re-election last year. But LeRoy Jones Jr., who chairs the Democratic Party in the state as well as its delegation on the panel, removed Sweeney from the seat that the lawmaker had selected himself to fill in 2020.
Jones never said why he replaced Sweeney with Laura Matos, other than deciding it is in the party’s best interest. Sweeney said it wasn’t merited and denies South Jersey representation in the Democratic delegation, even though the state constitution says it must be taken into consideration, but Judge Robert Lougy denied an injunction and said Sweeney was unlikely to prevail.
“The court finds here that the plaintiff fails to establish irreparable harm by clear and convincing evidence,” Lougy said. “The court does not find under the constitution or any subsequent documents that the plaintiff may have entered that he has a personal, individual right to serve on the commission. He cannot establish that the commission will be less able to perform its functions without him.”
William Tambussi, an attorney for Sweeney, said Jones didn’t have the authority to replace Sweeney with the process so close to its conclusion ahead of a March 1 deadline to certify a new map. He said there have been 23 hearings and meetings and that Sweeney took part in all but one.
“If a state party chair, either party, is allowed to remove a duly appointed and certified commission member without cause, after the final day of certification, Dec. 1, and after the commission’s work has begun, the ability to do that will render the commission meaningless,” Tambussi said.
“If a commissioner or the commission itself or any combination of commissioners can be arbitrarily removed by the state party chair at any time up until the vote on the map, it is only the state party chair’s voice, not the collective voice of the commission, that will matter,” he said. “This cannot be what the constitutional framers intended.”
While Sweeney selected himself for the position on the commission as part of a political deal that ended a fight over the position of state party chairman, the actual appointment was made by Jones.
Uzoma Nkwonta, an attorney for Jones, said the terms of Apportionment Commission members aren’t fixed and that as a result, the power to remove people from a position is inherently linked to the power to appoint them.
“There’s no law or legal principle that entitles Sen. Sweeney to quote-unquote finish what he started,” Nkwonta said. “He served at the discretion and at the pleasure of the party chair to serve the party’s interests and not as a prerogative for personal power.”
“Ms. Matos now serves that role because that’s what the state committee chair deemed to be in the party’s best interest,” he said. “And consistent with well-settled precedence, this court should not provide a forum for Sen. Sweeney to elevate his interests above those of the party.”
Lougy concluded that the appointment to the Apportionment Commission as written in the state constitution doesn’t amount to a fixed term from which a person can’t relatively easily be removed.
“The constitutional framers certainly knew how to do that when they wished,” Lougy said.
“I don’t find here that there is a fixed term,” he said. “The constitution broadly grants the power of appointment to the party chair with no restrictions on organization, procedure or duration of appointment.”
Sweeney could choose to appeal, though the commission’s work is nearly complete. It has public hearings scheduled for Wednesday at noon, Saturday at 10 a.m. and next Wednesday, Feb. 9, at 6 p.m.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.