New Jersey’s Supreme Court will weigh in on Governor Chris Christie’s decision to hold a special election Oct. 16 to replace deceased U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg.
The justices put the case on a fast track today, ordering briefs by June 17 and final responses by June 18, acting state courts administrative director Judge Glenn Grant said in a statement. The move follows a lower appeals court decision yesterday that there’s no legal obstacle to holding the vote 20 days before the general election, when Christie’s on the ballot seeking a second term.
“They obviously think this is a matter of great public interest and they want to weigh in,” Peg Schaffer, chairwoman of the Somerset County Democratic Committee and the driving force behind the challenge to the special election, said in a phone interview.
Scheduling a separate vote for senator allows the Republican governor to avoid appearing on the ballot below a Senate race in which a popular Democrat such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker may be the candidate, drawing more Democratic voters. Christie holds a lead of more than 30 percentage points over the Democratic candidate, state Senator Barbara Buono, in recent opinion polls, and a large margin of victory may help his party pick up seats in the Legislature.
Schaffer filed an emergency challenge to the special election date on June 7 as a four-way battle for the Democratic nomination for Senate began. The contest took shape after Lautenberg, an 89-year-old Democrat, died June 3, and Christie called for a quick campaign to select a successor to fill out the remainder of his fifth term.
Ten state organizations supported the lawsuit claiming the timing of the elections will reduce turnout and unnecessarily cost the state about $12 million. Schaffer said after the ruling yesterday it’s questionable that there’s enough time to hold the two ballots, as by law voting machines must be impounded for 15 days after an election and five to eight days will be needed to deliver them to polling places.
The court said yesterday there’s no evidence the schedule puts any greater burden on voters than participating in two more widely separated elections.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak in an e-mailed statement yesterday said the governor followed the law and ensured New Jersey voters would have a “voice and a choice” in choosing their next U.S. senator in both the primary and general election.
State Senator Barbara Buono, 59, Christie’s Democratic opponent, said yesterday the governor should be “fiscally responsible” and move the election to November.
“Regardless of the outcome of the court’s decision, holding an election on a Wednesday in October is a cynical decision by Governor Christie that will disenfranchise voters,” Buono said in a statement.
Christie appointed his attorney general, Jeffrey Chiesa, to temporarily fill Lautenberg’s seat.
U.S. Representative Frank Pallone and state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver joined Newark Mayor Cory Booker and U.S. Representative Rush Holt in filing papers to enter the Aug. 13 primary.
Booker, 44, already had already his run for Senate, as Lautenberg didn’t plan to seek re-election next year. The others clarified their intentions more recently.
In the Republican primary, former Bogota Mayor Steven Lonegan is facing Alieta Eck, a physician from Somerset.
Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman urged the appeals court to reject the challenge, arguing that Christie had “broad discretionary authority” to call the election on a date of his choosing under both state and federal law.
The appellate court agreed, saying state law “cautions against review that would usurp decisions left to and made by the other branches of government.”
The case is Grillo v. Christie, A-4648-12T2, Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division (Trenton).