Thursday, September 29, 2005

Judge: "Sore Loser" Law Unconstitutional, Put McWilliams on Ballot

When Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi rejected Mayor Albert T. McWilliams’ filing to run for mayor as a Republican, she relied on the so-called “sore loser” law that states a municipal candidate who loses a party primary cannot run for the same office in the general election under a different party banner.

But on Thursday (Sept. 29, 2005) Union County Superior Court Judge Walter R. Barisonek decided the law is unconstitutional and ordered Rajoppi to put the mayor’s name on the November 8 ballot. He immediately stayed the order until 4 p.m. Friday to allow any appeals.

The statute, NJSA 19:13-14.1, allows McWilliams to switch parties and run for City Council, freeholder or an Assembly seat, but restricts him from running for mayor, the seat he has held for eight years.

Philip Morin, the chairman of the Union County Republican Party and also the attorney who argued against Rajoppi’s action, said Thursday he was confident the ruling would be upheld on appeal and that voters would return McWilliams to office. He said Barisonek recognized the “fundamental unfairness“ of the law.

In his lengthy opinion Thursday, Barisonek meticulously addressed points argued Wednesday by attorneys representing Rajoppi, the Democratic Party, the state Attorney general’s office and the plaintiffs, which included McWilliams, the Plainfield Republican Municipal Committee, the county GOP and three Plainfield voters. It took about 90 minutes for Barisonek to read the opinion ,which included a complete history of the mayor’s situation and copious citations of case law on election rules.

“There is no litmus paper test that can resolve the present matter,“ he said, noting there is no case on record that covers the Plainfield situation.

He concluded letting the mayor run as a Republican after his failure in the Democratic primary would not upset the election process or cause party confusion, as the state and defense argued.

"The Democratic Party in Plainfield, I find, will not fall apart," he said.

Past cases dealt with primary losers then trying to run as independent or minority party candidates in the general election to draw votes away from a major party. In this instance, the candidate is moving from one major party to the other. If he is barred from running, only one major party will be on the ballot. Barisonek cited a court ruling that it is the public interest to preserve the two-party system.

Barisonek upheld Morin’s assertion that the rights of voters and candidates to associate with like-minded individuals is protected by the First Amendment, and that denying McWilliams the right to run would also deprive voters of the right to a choice on Election Day.

McWilliams was not present in court Thursday, but later issued a statement referring to primary victor Sharon Robinson-Briggs.

“Sharon’s biggest fear and that of her Democratic Union County bosses was realized today when the court ruled in favor of the voters,” he said.

McWilliams, apparently assuming he will prevail in any appeals, said, “This constitutional change enables the voters of Plainfield to choose between me as an experienced, qualified, issue-oriented public official, and my opponent, who has no true public experience, is not qualified to be mayor, and supports campaign tactics that disrespect the intelligence of our voters through the issuing of baseless, misleading, and negative statements.”

The Appellate Division will be under time constraints to rule on any appeals, because ballots must soon be printed for the Nov. 8 election.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: elections