The Bottom Line: What Friday’s Stunning Court Ruling Means For New Jersey Politics Going Forward

Politics in New Jersey may be changed forever following a stunning court order on Friday in the lawsuit brought by Rep. Andy Kim and several other candidates against what is known as the “county line.”

In his 49-page court order, U.S. District Judge Zahid Quraishi issued a preliminary injunction, granting Rep. Kim, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Bob Menendez, a monumental victory in his fight against the state’s political establishment.

In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs, which also included congressional candidates Sarah Schoengood and Carolyn Rush, argued that the system used in 19 of New Jersey’s 21 counties to decide where a candidate’s name is placed on a ballot is undemocratic and unconstitutional, is likely to succeed on its merits.

Barring the results of the appeal, the order will require a different ballot structure to be used at least for the state’s June 4 primary, and possibly for all elections going forward, following decades of party bosses having significant and unmatched influence in deciding who their party’s nominees on all levels should be.

What exactly is the line?

Unlike the 49 other states, in 19 of the state’s 21 counties, the establishment’s preferred candidates for every office — including president, Congress, mayor, sheriff, county commissioner and county clerk and local committee members — are all bracketed in a single column or row on ballots.

Because the well known candidates, such as President Biden for the Democrats, or former President Trump for the Republicans in this year’s primary races, will be the names on top of “the line,” when voters participating in the either party’s primary vote, they almost always vote with the most recognizable name and then continue straight down “the line,” making it extremely difficult for unendorsed candidates to break into politics.

Candidates who do not receive the county endorsement would be placed in another columns, sometimes several columns away, in a spot referred to as “ballot Siberia” because of how far away it can be from the county line.

Each county has their own method for granting their endorsement, with some holding a secret convention, where county committee members are able to vote for their preferred candidate, while in other counties, specifically the most influential ones, the chairperson may decide on their own.

The 2024 U.S. Senate Democratic Primary:

On September 23, 2023, just one day after Senator Bob Menendez was indicted, Rep. Andy Kim, who is in middle of his third term in Congress, was the first politician in the state to call for Menendez to resign and announced that he will challenge the three-term Senator for the Democratic nomination.

However, two months later, First Lady Tammy Murphy declared her candidacy as well, and within days was endorsed by the Democratic leaders of the five counties with the most registered Democrats, immediately establishing herself as the prohibitive favorite in the race.

Murphy’s entry into the race was met with loud protests from the progressive wing of the party, which viewed her candidacy as a power grab by a governor who – through the state budgets – controls how much money county chairs can bring back to their state’s, creating a scenario where it was extremely difficult for them to support Kim.

As the county party nominating conventions got underway earlier this year, Kim won almost every one in which there was a secret ballot — including his first – a shocking upset Murphy’s home county of Monmouth — while Murphy won the largest counties, largely without secret ballots.

The Lawsuit:

In February, Kim filed his lawsuit, arguing that the line confers an unfair and unconstitutional advantage for candidates who receive the endorsement. The lawsuit, brought against county clerks in the 19 counties that use the line system, asked the U.S. District Court to mandate line-free ballots in this year’s primary and in future elections.

“Since candidates featured on the county line stand to obtain a significant advantage due to their preferential ballot placement and discriminatory ballot design, Plaintiffs and various other off-line and unbracketed or less-bracketed candidates across the state will be constitutionally harmed … absent emergent relief by this Court,” the lawsuit said.

Several weeks later, on March 18, the judge held a day-long hearing at the federal courthouse in Trenton, where both sides made their case

The hearing was preceded by the shocking announcement just one day before by the state’s attorney general, Matt Platkin, a Democrat and longtime ally of the governor – who appointed him to the position. In a letter to Judge Quraishi Platkin wrote that he agreed the ballot design was unconstitutional and will not defend it in court.

Murphy dropped out of the race the following week, leaving Kim the clear frontrunner and favorite to win the general election.

In his preliminary order – which he has since clarified only applies to Democrats – Judge Quraishi agreed with Kim, noting that candidates on the county line “receive a distinct advantage.”

“The integrity of the democratic process for a primary election is at stake and the remedy Plaintiffs are seeking is extraordinary,” Quraishi wrote in his opinion. He added that the plaintiffs “have met their burden and that this is the rare instance when mandatory relief is warranted.”

Ironically, the ruling will no longer help Kim, and may in fact hurt him, but nonetheless, Kim released a statement celebrating the ruling.

“Today’s decision is a victory for a fairer, more democratic politics in New Jersey. It’s a victory built from the incredible grassroots work of activists across our state who saw an undemocratic system marginalizing the voices of voters, and worked tirelessly to fix it,” Kim said in a statement. “While fixing this unfair ballot system is a massive step forward towards perfecting our democracy, there is still work to be done. Both in New Jersey and nationwide, we need to regain the trust of the voters we serve.”

Is This The End Of The Line?

The ruling does not permanently settle the issue of whether county lines can be used in the future. The judge’s decision blocks the system for this year’s primary, but it is not his final ruling in the case, which will dictate the future of the county lines beyond this year.

Several hours after the ruling was issued, 17 of the 19 county clerks named as defendants in the federal lawsuit challenging the ballot design filed an appeal.

In addition, in response to a question from the Morris County Republican Committee as to whether the ruling also applies to Republicans, who did not bring the lawsuit, the judge curiously agreed.

“The preliminary injunction granted in this case is, and must be, limited to the 2024 Democratic Primary Election,” Quraishi wrote in his ruling. “Plaintiffs’ allegations and sought relief only applied to the 2024 Democratic Primary Election.”

This content, and any other content on TLS, may not be republished or reproduced without prior permission from TLS. Copying or reproducing our content is both against the law and against Halacha. To inquire about using our content, including videos or photos, email us at [email protected].

Stay up to date with our news alerts by following us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

**Click here to join over 20,000 receiving our Whatsapp Status updates!**

**Click here to join the official TLS WhatsApp Community!**

Got a news tip? Email us at [email protected], Text 415-857-2667, or WhatsApp 609-661-8668.


Comments are closed.