No. A-4131-15T3

Sep. 8, 2017 (Date Decided)

Judge Espinosa

FOR APPELLANT: Amanda S. Haines (Ms. Haines, attorney; Ms. Haines, Demery J. Roberts, and Scott T. Miccio, on the brief)

FOR RESPONDENT: Angelo J. Genova (Genova Burns, LLC, attorneys; Mr. Genova, of counsel and on the brief; Lawrence Bluestone, Brett M. Pugach, and Kevin R. Miller, on the brief)

The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission appealed from the deemed-adopted decision of an ALJ, which ruled that the commission lacked jurisdiction to issue a complaint when the commission lacked a sufficient number of members to act due to vacancies. In July 2011, the commission voted to investigate alleged violations by defendants. The commission authorized the issuance of a complaint against defendants in January 2013, but had not filled the vacancy created by one of the member’s deaths; in addition, the other Democratic member of the committee recused himself.

Defendants challenged the commission’s jurisdiction, arguing that a valid authorization required bipartisan agreement and a requisite number of commissioners. After a hearing, the ALJ agreed with defendants’ argument that the commission required three members from both political parties to have the necessary quorum. The ALJ ruled that the commission lacked jurisdiction and that the complaint was void ab initio. During the 45-day period for the commission to act on the ALJ’s ruling, only one commissioner was active. Ultimately, the ALJ’s decision was deemed adopted.

On appeal, defendants contended that the commission lacked standing to appeal its own agency decision, and that the appeal presented a non-justiciable political question. In response, the commission argued that because the ALJ decided a purely legal issue not falling within the ALJ’s statutory role, and because a clearly erroneous decision was deemed adopted due to the commission’s inability to act, appellate review should have been available.

The court first ruled that because the deemed-adopted decision curtailed the commission’s ability to exercise its statutory responsibility, the commission’s appeal was not barred on the basis that it was not an aggrieved party. The court also rejected defendants’ argument that the appeal presented a non-justiciable political question. The court held that if the commission was not permitted to appeal the ALJ’s deemed-adopted, there would be no judicial review of the decision on a question of law. The court also held that the appeal presented an issue of substantial public interest warranting the court’s exercise of jurisdiction. Finally, the court noted the commission’s efforts to preserve its appellate rights.

Turning to the merits, the court rejected defendants’ challenges to the commission’s complaint, first noting that the Campaign Contributions and Expenditures Reporting Act deviated from common law quorum, requiring three votes of the commission’s entire authorized membership of four. However, the court ruled that such a quorum only applied to a “determination” by the commission, and held that the decision to authorize a complaint was not a “determination”, such that common law quorum applied to such actions. Finally, the court ruled that the action need not be authorized by members from two or more political parties, since the Act merely required that no one political party dominate the commission.