In Linden Democratic Committee v. City of Linden (A-30-21/086255) (Decided July 6, 2022), the Supreme Court of New Jersey clarified the state’s Municipal Vacancy Law. It held that the New Jersey Legislature’s 1990 amendments removed a governing body’s discretion to keep vacant a seat previously occupied by a nominee of a political party. Instead, the Legislature empowered the municipal committee of the political party whose nominee previously occupied the vacant seat to submit three names to the governing body, from which the governing body must choose one to fill the seat.
Facts of Linden Democratic Committee v. City of Linden
Michele Yamakaitis, the representative of the 8th Ward on the City of Linden Municipal Council (City Council) — a member of the Democratic Party — resigned from her position ten months before the next general election. After the 8th Ward councilmember resigned, the Democratic Committee nominated three individuals from whom the City Council could choose a successor. The City Council, however, refused to fill the vacancy with any of the submitted nominees and voted to leave the seat open for ten months until the next general election.
In response, the Democratic Committee selected Paul Coates, Jr. — one of its three nominees — to fill the vacancy, but the City Council refused to seat him. The Democratic Committee and Coates then brought an action in the Superior Court, Chancery Division, to compel the City Council to accept Coates as the 8th Ward’s representative.
The Chancery Division — relying on N.J.S.A. 40A:16-11 (Section 11) of the Municipal Vacancy Law — granted relief, ordering that Coates be seated as a member of the City Council. 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.
NJ Supreme Court’s Decision in Linden Democratic Committee v. City of Linden
The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed. It held that the Appellate Division’s interpretation of the Municipal Vacancy Law could not be squared with the plain text of the statute or its legislative history.
“The members of the City Council, as well as the mayor, had no lawful authority to deny Coates a seat on the Council or to deprive the citizens of the 8th ward their right of representation in their municipal government,” Justice Barry Albin wrote. “The city council did not have the authority to keep the 8th ward council seat vacant for ten months until the next general election.”
As Justice Albin explained, the principal goals of the Municipal Vacancy Law, which provides procedures for filling vacancies in governing bodies of municipalities, were to “ensure that appointments to fill vacancies should be expeditiously made and that the appointment process should not be used to thwart minority representation.” Section 5 of the Vacancy Law states in part that “[t]he governing body may fill the vacancy temporarily by appointment as hereinafter provided.”
Justice Albin went on to note that the Legislature took very different approaches to a governing body’s authority to fill the seat of a political party nominee as opposed to a nominee unaffiliated with a political party. In Section 11, the Legislature conferred the power to fill the vacancy on the municipal committee of the political party, with the municipal governing body playing a limited role. In contrast, in Section 12, the Legislature ceded the authority to fill the vacancy to the governing body.
Applying the Section 11 to the facts of the case, Justice Albin wrote:
After Yamakaitis resigned as the councilmember of the 8th Ward, Section 11 mandated that (1) the Democratic Committee “shall . . . present to the governing body the names of three nominees for the selection of a successor to fill the vacancy”; (2) the City Council “shall . . . appoint one of the nominees as the successor to fill the vacancy”; and (3) if the City Council “fails to appoint one of the nominees within the time prescribed herein,” the Democratic Committee “shall . . . appoint one of the nominees as the successor to fill the vacancy, and such person shall be sworn in immediately.”
According to the court, the contrast in the Legislature’s use of the word “shall” in Section 11 and its use of the word “may” in Section 12 is telling. It further noted that Section 13 does not discuss what occurs if the governing body fails to fill a vacancy of a council member affiliated with a political party because Section 11 covers the field with mandatory directives. The court further found that Section 5(b)’s “may . . . hereinafter provided” language gives the City Council discretion in Section 11 — but limited discretion, such as the discretion to pick one of the three nominees submitted by the political party’s municipal committee.
The New Jersey Supreme Court went on to cite the legislative history of the Municipal Vacancy Law as further support for its decision. As the court explained, the 1980 amendments gave discretion to the governing body in filling municipal vacancies by changing the word “shall” to “may” in Section 11. However, the Legislature reversed course 10 years later, removing the discretion conferred on the governing body by restoring the word “shall” and eliminating “may.”
“Under the 1990 amendments to the Vacancy Law, members of the governing body may not deny a member of the opposite political party or a dissident faction of a political party a seat on that legislative council,” Justice Albin wrote. “Simply stated, the 1990 amendments constrain the majority party from arbitrarily depriving the minority party or a party’s dissident faction from representation on the governing body.”
Thus, under the New Jersey Supreme Court’s reading of the statute, the City Council did not have the authority to keep the 8th Ward council seat vacant for ten months until the next general election. “The Linden City Council’s decision not to fill the empty seat deprived the citizens of the 8th Ward of Linden of representation on their legislative body,” Justice Albin wrote. “That outcome is wholly inconsistent not only with the Legislature’s intent in enacting the 1990 amendments, but also with the general guarantee of our laws to ensure representation to all citizens within a municipality.”