Joisey-style justice

Posted: Oct 07, 2002 12:00 AM
Remember "Let every vote count," the Democratic mantra of 2000? Forget it. Now it's "votes don't count" -- at least when New Jersey Democratic primary winner Sen. Robert Torricelli's likely loss to Republican Doug Forrester stands to hurt the Democrats' hold of the U.S. Senate. Don't ask me what the New Jersey Supreme Court justices -- four Dems, two Repubs and an independent -- were thinking when they issued their unanimous ruling. (Clearly, they weren't.) State law allows for the replacement of candidates 51 or more days before an election. Torricelli withdrew 35 days before Nov. 5. While the justices wrote that replacing Torricelli would serve "the dual interests of full voter choice and the orderly administration of an election" -- their decision to allow Torricelli's name to be replaced with a new candidate's name on the November ballot violates both interests. New Jersey voters, after all, supported Torricelli in the primary. The court is allowing the state Democratic Party -- not the voters it says it champions -- to choose his replacement. Why was Torricelli in trouble? Gee, maybe it has something to do with the fact that the Senate Ethics Committee slapped Torricelli on the wrist for accepting jewelry, an $8,200 Rolex watch, 12 Italian suits and more from businessman David Chang. Maybe it's the inequity in the fact that Chang is serving an 18-month-prison sentence for giving lavish gifts to Torricelli -- and Torricelli was primed to serve his second term in the Senate. As Chang told the New York Post, "I'm in jail, why shouldn't he be?" The Democratic Party is supposed to be better than this. Democratic Party leaders, who were well aware of the Chang saga, could have appealed -- or pressured -- Torricelli not to seek re-election. Or state Democratic suits could have mounted a campaign for a primary challenger. Or D.C. Dem biggies could have made sure that the Senate Ethics Committee acted sooner and more appropriately with Torricelli. They didn't. If the Torch could win re-election, they were happy to take let him pocket Chang's goodies and get away with it. And the only new piece of knowledge that led to their decision that he had to go was: Torricelli started slipping in the polls. I know what it's like to not like your party's nominee. After a jury found GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon liable for fraud -- that was a new development, since overturned by a judge -- I called Secretary of State Bill Jones' office to find out if Simon could resign and be replaced by a more forthcoming Republican -- to wit, Jones. Under California law, Simon won the primary and Simon would remain on the ballot, even if he resigned, I was told. Any GOP challenger would have to register and run as a write-in. It didn't occur to the Jones people to ask the court to undermine the rules. Now Jones is thinking of filing an amicus brief against the New Jersey decision. Secretary of State counsel Bill Wood explained, if the court could overlook the 51-day deadline, 35 days out, "next time it might be 30 days." The worst of it is, the Joisey court didn't care that there was no extraordinary reason for the switch -- no death, no legal revelation. The court, Wood noted, OK'd overturning the primary vote "for any reason." One GOP operative posed the question principled Democrats ought to be asking, but aren't: "What's to stop the Republican Party from looking at races around the country, and determining where candidates are weak and just replacing them with a strong one?" The answer should be: respect for the rule of law. But if the New Jersey Supreme Court feels no such respect, why would partisan politicians?