TRENTON – A federal judge has handed down a ruling that threw out a 2016 lawsuit that challenged the legality of a vote of the Ocean County Democratic Committee in which party leaders were given multiple votes in choosing which candidates got the “party line” in the primary election of that year. In addition to contending that giving party leaders multiple votes violated constitutional rights, it claimed that the party – and Chairman Wyatt Earp – was actually controlled by Ocean County GOP leader George Gilmore.
United States District Judge Freda Wolfson has rejected arguments made by a former Democratic primary candidate and county committee members that challenged the legality of the Ocean County Democratic Organization’s “county line” endorsement vote procedures, finding the arguments made by the plaintiffs in their federal civil rights lawsuit were “without merit.”
One Person, Multiple Votes
The lawsuit – which named Ocean County Democratic Party leaders including Chairman Wyatt Earp and his deputy Marta Harrison, along with then-congressional candidate Jim Keady, Marianne Clemente, then-freeholder candidate Michael Cooke and other Democrats as defendants – accused them of “…wrongfully conspiring so as to create and implement Rules diluting and devaluating the single vote that Plaintiffs were permitted to cast at the OCDO’s internal Mini Convention, in violation of Plaintiffs’ rights under the First, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments of the Constitution,” according to Wolfson’s written opinion from January.
At issue were procedures used by the county party to pick candidates that were given the “party line” on the ballot for the June primary election, in which some delegates to the convention were given multiple votes. The ballot positioning gives primary candidates an advantage, as the party’s base vote typically supports the candidates given the preferential position.
Judge Wolfson’s ruling follows her May, 2016 denial of a request from counsel for the plaintiffs to issue an injunction removing Monmouth County’s Jim Keady from the ballot in the 2016 Democratic congressional primary and appoint a special master to conduct a revote. The primary was ultimately won by Burlington County’s Fred LaVergne, who went on to be defeated by incumbent Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur in the general election.
Judge: Democrat County Committee Vote Doesn’t Constitute “State Action,” No Claim Under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983
According to the judge’s ruling, the fatal flaw of the lawsuit, which made claims under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 – a federal statute that penalizes deprivation of civil rights under color of state law – was that the actions of the Democratic county committee members did not meet the legal definition of “state action” required to bring suit under the federal civil rights statute.
The conduct challenged by the plaintiffs was the county committee allocating so-called “at-large” delegates multiple votes at the mini-convention, while regular county committee members were only allowed to cast one vote.
According to Wolfson’s written opinion, the plaintiffs opposed the motion to dismiss the suit by arguing that the actions of the Democrats did indeed constitute state action by, among other things, “using a voting selection process to determine candidate endorsement.”
Judge Wolfson applied a precedential 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals case that dealt with a similar set of facts from Pennsylvania as basis for throwing out the suit, Max v. Republican Committee of Lancaster County, 587 F.3d 198.
Like the Republican committee that was sued in the Max case, Wolfson opined that “…conduct by the OCDO pertaining to the endorsement and selection of a candidate for the Party Line constitutes internal party conduct, and, as a result, does not amount to state action for purposes of attaching § 1983 liability.”
Quoting another previous case, Wolfson’s ruling noted that “merely private conduct, no matter how discriminatory or wrongful,” cannot be targeted under the federal civil rights statute, which serves as a statutory vehicle for enforcing constitutional rights.
Judge Imposes Sanctions, County Clerk Colabella’s Legal Fees To Be Paid By Plaintiffs
In her January ruling, Judge Wolfson also granted the application of the county’s lawyers to have their legal fees paid by the plaintiffs for keeping Colabella as a defendant in the suit.
Colabella was included as a defendant in the lawsuit for the purposes of injunctive relief only, in the form of printing new ballots.
A total of $5227.26 was expended by the County of Ocean to defend the suit, according to a certification submitted to the court by attorney Matthew Thompson of the Sahradnik firm
“The Defendant has expended much public expense to defend this baseless litigation,” Thompson wrote in a brief in support of his motion for sanctions, which Judge Wolfson granted.
Since the lawsuit was filed after the ballots were printed, “the proverbial horse has left the barn,” Thompson reasoned in court filings, leaving no basis to keep Colabella as a defendant in the suit.
In justifying the sanctions, Wolfson wrote that following her May 26th, 2016 denial, there was “…no adequate jurisdictional basis to justify the retention of Defendant Colabella as a defendant, since Plaintiffs already were aware that they would not be entitled to a new Mini Convention.”
Plaintiff Neuman Says He Will Appeal
Reached Friday night, Scott Neuman, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit said that he plans to appeal the judge’s ruling dismissing the case.