Ex-Senate President Sweeney loses court fight over being tossed from N.J. redistricting commission

Published: Feb. 01, 2022

A state judge on Tuesday rejected former state Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s attempt to be reinstated as a member of the commission redrawing New Jersey’s legislative districts after being ousted last week in a stunning move.

State Democratic Party Chairman LeRoy Jones removed Sweeney, a South Jersey Democrat, last Wednesday and replaced him with Laura Matos, a longtime political operative.

The move came just weeks after Sweeney exited the Senate, having lost re-election in an out-of-nowhere upset that ended his 12-year tenure as president, the longest in New Jersey history.

Sweeney — who was appointed to the redistricting commission nearly two years before his loss — responded to Jones’ decision by going to court. He filed a lawsuit claiming the chairman booted him in a “unilateral and unlawful” way, “without cause or authority.”

But state Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy, sitting in Mercer County, said in his ruling Wednesday that Jones, as the head of the state party, has “the right” under the state Constitution to appoint members to the panel “with no restrictions on organization, procedure, or duration of appointments.”

Reached via phone after the ruling, Sweeney told NJ Advance Media he was “clearly disappointed.”

“I’m more than anything concerned about South Jersey,” he added. “I’ve got nothing against Laura Matos. I’m just concerned about South Jersey being fairly represented.”

“It is what it is.”

Asked about whether he might appeal the judge’s decision, Sweeney said “We’ve got to read his ruling.”

One of the lawsuit’s arguments was that Jones’ move violated a provision in the state Constitution calling for party chairmen to give “due consideration to the representation of various geographical areas of the state.”

Sweeney, a West Deptford resident, was the only Democratic member of the commission who lives in South Jersey.

The state Democratic Party noted that Matos grew up in Burlington County in South Jersey. She now lives in Belmar in Monmouth County, considered the central part of the state.

But Lougy said Sweeney’s team failed to demonstrate that Matos’ appointment would significantly hurt South Jersey.

William Tambussi, Sweeney’s attorney, said “the lawsuit was about providing the eight counties of South Jersey with representation on the Commission that will draw the map of its legislative districts for the next ten years.”

“With this decision, there will be no South Jersey Democratic representation in that process,” Tambussi said. “That is truly unfortunate.”

This all comes just weeks before the commission’s March 1 deadline to produce a new legislative map.

Every decade, a bipartisan commission is tasked with redrawing the 40 districts represented in the New Jersey Legislature, the body that crafts the state’s laws and pass its budget. Under the state Constitution, state Democratic and Republican chairs each name five members to the legislative panel.

As part of a deal cut in 2020, Sweeney was allowed to select one member. He chose himself.

Jones, an Essex County Democrat, did not specify exactly last week why he removed Sweeney but said it’s his duty to “select standard bearers who will best represent the Democratic Party’s interests on the commission” and that “no person or organization’s goals and ambitions are above the interests of our party and the people of this State.”

That appeared to be aimed at the South Jersey Democratic political bloc overseen by Sweeney and powerbroker George Norcross, who have often clashed with their counterparts in other parts of the state.

Jones’ decision is the latest blow to the South Jersey coalition, which lost six seats in November’s legislative elections, including Sweeney’s. It also renewed a longstanding rift between the party’s northern and southern factions.

Sweeney said Tuesday his lawsuit was to “fight for the Democrats in South Jersey.”

“Now they have carte-blanche to do whatever they want to do in South Jersey,” he said of northern Democrats.

Lougy, however, said putting “judicially imposed restrictions” on the redistricting process risks “plunging the courts deep in the business of resolving intra-party controversies and factional strife.”

Sweeney’s team also argued that members of the commission serve fixed terms, starting on Dec. 1 and ending March 1.

Lougy, however, dismissed that argument, saying there are no fixed terms and state party chairmen have the right to remove and replace members.

A spokesman for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee said Tuesday that Jones’ decision “was in the best interests of the Democratic Party and that he had the absolute legal right to take that action.”

“We are grateful for today’s ruling affirming that,” spokesman Phil Swibinski said.

Swibinski also alluded to how Matos is now the only Latina on the redistricting panel, which he said “addresses the glaring omission of a representative for New Jersey’s almost 21% Latino population, while also adding another woman’s voice to this critical process and preserving South Jersey representation.”

The spokesman added that the ruling “prevents” an “unfortunate and misguided attempt to deny a well-qualified Latina leader from serving this crucial role.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-02-02 02:56:45 -0800