NJ attorney general says county line system is ‘unconstitutional’ ahead of Senate primary

The New Jersey State Attorney General will not defend a lawsuit against a controversial ballot system known as the county line because he said he believes it is unconstitutional.

In a letter to the court, Attorney General Matthew Platkin said his office will not intervene in the case filed by U.S. Rep. Andy Kim, who is running for the Senate against First Lady Tammy Murphy. The letter is an astonishing development in a fight by political reformers, good government groups and progressive activists who say they’re out to stop powerful party leaders from doling out preferential treatment on election ballots.

It is the role of the attorney general to defend state statutes, but Platkin said in his letter that his role does not preclude him from intervening in this case.

“Nothing in New Jersey law prevents the Attorney General from ‘interpret[ing] a statute as unconstitutional’ in exceptional cases,” Platkin wrote.

The county line has become a central issue in the Democratic primary to replace Sen. Bob Menendez, who is under federal indictment and has not said whether he will run for reelection. In the days after the governor’s wife announced her run, the most powerful Democratic Party bosses in the state endorsed her. Those bosses are either political allies of the governor, or have been appointed to prestigious or lucrative jobs, or have lobbying business with the state.

Kim filed a federal lawsuit seeking an injunction against the county line for this June’s primary, asking that county clerks be required to list all the Senate candidates together. Unlike every other state in the country, New Jersey groups candidates together who are endorsed by the county political organizations, placing candidates for different offices in one line. A hearing in that case is scheduled for Monday morning.

A spokesperson for Gov. Phil Murphy released a statement Sunday responding to Platkin’s letter.

“It is well-established that Attorneys General have a general obligation to defend the constitutionality of statutes, regardless of their own personal views,” spokesperson Mahen Gunaratna said. “The Governor believes that a legal defense of the statute permitting [the county line] would have been appropriate and consistent with the actions of prior Attorneys General.”

The governor has said previously that he thinks the party leaders are in the best position to determine who should be endorsed in the primary, and be awarded the county line. Tammy Murphy has won the endorsement in the counties with the largest number of Democratic voters, and the most powerful political machines.

Kim has been able to win most of the county party conventions where rank-and-file members are allowed to vote by secret ballot.

A group of candidates who lost elections has teamed up with the New Jersey Working Families Alliance to sue the county clerks over the line. That suit began in 2020 and is still working its way through the courts.

Since there wouldn’t be a decision in that case before the June primary, Kim filed a second suit against the county line, seeking an injunction. A lawyer working on both cases, welcomed the attorney general’s letter to the court.

“The letter is a demonstration of sorely needed public leadership, and serves as a death knell to the unconstitutional primary ballot design in New Jersey,” said Yael Bromberg, one of the lawyers. “At the end of the day, the AG declines to intervene, and wants nothing to do with defending this undemocratic and unconstitutional ballot design.”

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