Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Judge hears arguments, tells lawyers 'come back tomorrow'

The question of whether Mayor Albert T. McWilliams will be on the November ballot as a Republican candidate remained undecided Wednesday (Sept. 28, 2005) after arguments from attorneys for the Plainfield GOP, Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi and the state Attorney General's Office.

Union County Superior Court Judge Walter R. Barisonek started the proceedings Wednesday by saying he did not intend to render a decision right away. He will do so at 10 a.m. Thursday, he said.

McWilliams lost the June Democratic primary, but after Cheryl Arana dropped out in mid-September as the Republican candidate for mayor, the city GOP invited McWilliams to fill the vacancy. He changed parties and filed, but on the Sept. 21 deadline for filling the vacancy, Rajoppi rejected the filing, saying it violated the state's "sore loser" law that prohibits municipal primary losers from filing under another party banner in the same year's general election.

The state Attorney General's office got involved because the GOP's argument against Rajoppi's stand challenges the constitutionality of a state statute.

On Wednesday, Barisonek said, "I read all the briefs myself, I read all the cases myself," noting he left nothing to law clerks.

Starting with attorney Philip Morin representing McWilliams, the county and city Republican committees and three voters as plaintiffs, Barisonek said every "sore loser" case dealt with an independent or minority party candidate and asked why it shouldn't apply to a majority party as well.

Morin said the major parties are treated differently and the cases of independent or minor parties focused on "the mischief that would be created by those kind of candidacies."

Barisonek tossed back the county's defense that the law should apply to major parties to stop factionalism, preserve uniformity and preserve the primary route to the general election.

After more exchanges with Morin, Barisonek said, "I think that you may have conceded at this point that Mr. McWilliams does not have a fundamental right to run."

But Morin said there were "substantial" rights of the unaffiliated voters, the Republican Party and the candidate himself at issue.

Barisonek said voters were not bound by affiliation in the general election.

"That's why we close the curtain," he said.

His opening question to the defense was, "Why shouldn't I call this the 'worried winner' statute as opposed to the 'sore loser' statute?"

County Counsel Robert Barry said a change in the route to the ballot "may very well have a concerned winner."

In his rigorous questioning, Barisonek said the only way McWilliams could run under the statute was as a write-in candidate and said "we have a Democratic stronghold" because there would be no one else for the voters to choose.

Barry said the statute only precluded the Republicans from selecting a single individual from the "tens of thousands" eligible to run for mayor.

Attorney Joyce Wan said the Attorney General's office had "no interest whatsoever" in the outcome of the Plainfield race, but was only there for the constitutionality of the statute.

"The court can only construe the statute as whole," she said.

She said the statute's intention is to prevent intra-party feuding being played out in the general election.

Wan said if voters in Plainfield feel strongly enough that they want McWilliams to be mayor, they have the right to a write-in vote.

As Barisonek finished hearing the arguments Wednesday, he said, "I have vacillated three times already in deciding this case. I listened to everybody and read all your papers, and that's it."

As he set 10 a.m.Thursday as the time for his decision, he advised all parties to have appeals documents ready, as the case will affect Rajoppi and the ballot situation.

Presently, the November 8 ballot now will only show Democrat Sharon Robinson-Briggs and independent Robert Ferraro as candidates for mayor.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: election