The New Jersey Supreme Court recently agreed to consider Linden Democratic Committee v. City of Linden. The question is whether, under the Municipal Vacancy Law, the Linden Municipal Council had discretion to keep a seat on the Council vacant until the next general election, rather than appointing one of the three nominees presented by the Linden Democratic Committee to fill the vacant seat. The Appellate Division previously found that the seat could properly be left vacant.
Facts of Linden Democratic Committee v. City of Linden
Plaintiff Paul Coates, Jr. was one of three people whose names were submitted by the Linden Democratic Committee (the Committee) to fill the unexpired term of the 8th Ward councilmember in the City of Linden (the City). That council seat became vacant when the incumbent successfully ran for and was elected council president. The governing body voted not to appoint any of the three individuals and resolved that the seat remain vacant pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40A:16-5(b) (Section 5). Relying on N.J.S.A. 40A:16-11 (Section 11), the Committee appointed and swore in Coates as council member for the 8th Ward.
When the City refused to seat Coates, he and the Committee (collectively, plaintiffs) filed suit against the City and municipal council (collectively, defendants) seeking, among other things, an order requiring the City council to seat Coates as the 8th Ward councilmember. Plaintiffs also alleged a violation of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act (the CRA). On May 14, 2019, the judge ordered that Coates “be immediately seated as the 8th Ward Councilman for the City of Linden.” Plaintiffs subsequently moved for summary judgment on the CRA claim, and defendants cross-moved for summary judgment dismissing that count of the complaint. The judge concluded defendants denied Coates his substantive due process right to be seated as the 8th Ward councilmember, and her September 4, 2019 order granted plaintiffs’ motion and awarded them counsel fees.
Appellate Division Decision in Linden Democratic Committee v. City of Linden
The Appellate Division reversed. It held that the Defendant’s interpretation of the Municipal Vacancy Law is consistent with the plain language of Sections 5(b) and 11. The court wrote:
Defendants argue that in the first instance Section 5(b) vests appointment of an interim successor to fill a vacancy with the governing body in its discretion. Section 11’s mandatory language applies only to the process by which the appointment is made. They contend that despite the Legislature’s repeated amendments to the Vacancy Law, Section 5(b) has never been amended. Defendants argue that their construction of the two provisions harmonizes Section 5 and Section 11, and plaintiffs’ interpretation renders Section 5(b) superfluous. We agree.
Issues Before the NJ Supreme Court
On November 21, 2021, the New Jersey Supreme Court granted certification. The justices agreed to consider the following question: “Under the Municipal Vacancy Law, N.J.S.A. 40A:16-1 to -23, did the Linden Municipal Council have discretion to keep a seat on the Council vacant until the next general election, rather than appointing one of the three nominees presented by the Linden Democratic Committee to fill the vacant seat?”
Oral arguments have not yet been scheduled in the case.