End of ‘the line’? Platkin says office will not defend state’s unique ballot in court case

AG: ‘Evidence presented does not support a defense of the constitutionality of these statutes’

In a move that could dramatically impact the state’s Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate (and change elections in the state as we know them moving forward) Attorney General Matt Platkin is indicating that he will tell a federal judge that the state’s county organizational line is unconstitutional — and that he will not defend it in court.

Platkin, in a bombshell letter dated March 17 to the office of U.S. District Court Judge Zahid Quraishi, said his office will not intervene in a lawsuit filed by U.S. Rep. Andy Kim (D-3rd Dist.), who is questioning the constitutionality of the line. Quraishi has a hearing on the case Monday.

The news was first reported by the New Jersey Globe on Sunday afternoon.

The letter says, “The attorney general has concluded that the evidence presented does not support a defense of the constitutionality of these statutes.”

Andy Kim and Tammy Murphy.

And, while this does not necessarily mean that the judge will rule in favor of Kim — who is competing against first lady Tammy Murphy and others for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate — it certainly appears to help Kim’s case considerably.

It could be an election-changing decision.

The line, where party favorites are grouped together rather than grouping together candidates for a particular office, is only used in New Jersey. Because studies have shown having “the line” can be worth up to 10% points or more to the candidate, county party leaders seemingly have more influence than similar positions in other states.

The idea of “the line” seemingly comes up every election cycle, but it has been more prominent this year due to the race between Kim and Murphy.

Kim filed suit in part because he feels county officials are feeling pressured to support Gov. Phil Murphy’s wife — giving her an unfair advantage. Murphy already has secured the line from organization endorsements from large Democratic counties, including Bergen, Essex, Camden, Middlesex and Hudson.

Many pundits feel Murphy’s chances of winning the nomination drop dramatically if “the line” were not to be used.

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship, said Plakin’s actions will have an impact on the first lady no matter how the case ultimately is decided.

“This will have a huge impact, because her campaign will now be seen as benefiting from a process that’s been called unconstitutional by the attorney general of the state of New Jersey,” he said.

“That’s significant because it was already a controversy. So, if you’re in the anti-county line movement, this is a symbolic victory and makes it easier for you to try to convince others that the line is not appropriate.”

Platkin explained his decision in his letter.

“The traditional need for the attorney general to defend the results of the democratic process does not apply neatly to a case where the plaintiffs produced substantial record evidence to challenge the statutes as undermining the democratic process,” he wrote.

He went on to write:

“New Jersey stands alone across the nation in the use of bracketing for primary-election machine ballots, which further undermines the claim that these laws are necessary to advance the government interests on which the attorney general would have relied.

“No official that the attorney general represents in court implements these laws, so there is no risk that any state agencies would simultaneously be enforcing but declining to defend a particular statute.

“His court has made clear in its prior decisions that the constitutional question at issue turns on the evidence. The attorney general has concluded that the evidence presented does not support a defense of the constitutionality of these statutes.”

Murphy spokesperson Mahen Gunaratna said the governor disagrees with the argument.

“Outside the context of any campaign, Gov. Murphy has consistently and accurately noted that the bracketing of candidates is permitted by duly enacted laws that have been on the books for decades,” Gunaratna said in a statement. “It is well-established that attorneys general have a general obligation to defend the constitutionality of statutes, regardless of their own personal views.

“The governor believes that a legal defense of the statute permitting bracketing would have been appropriate and consistent with the actions of prior attorneys general.”

Ben Dworkin.

How — and when — Quraishi rules after Monday’s hearing is unclear. He could eliminate or dismiss the suit. The only thing certain is that the Attorney General’s Office will not be arguing in support of the line.

Case closed? Dworkin doesn’t necessarily think so.

While duly noting that he is not an attorney, Dworkin offered this.

“I think there is a legal argument to make for the line,” he said. “Effectively, a primary election is an activity conducted by private organizations, namely, the Democrats and the Republicans — you have to be a member of one party or the other to participate.“If you look at it from that perspective, the organization’s ability to endorse and to bracket its favored candidates would appear both reasonable and legal.”Dworkin pointed to a frequent comment by Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, who said having a preferred candidate is no different than a company board recommending preferred people to their shareholders.Dworkin added: “That’s what it may fundamentally come down to: How do you interpret the primary election? Is it an exercise by private organization or is it an exercise in public democracy?”