Democratic Assembly Leaders Take Constitutional Tack with Two Measures

John Reitmeyer | March 17, 2017 | Politics
Legislators decide Christie regulatory change to gun laws conflicts with legislative intent, decide presidential candidates on state ballot must release tax returns

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto
During an Assembly voting session yesterday that at times sounded more like a class in constitutional law, members of the lower chamber gave final approval to two measures that gave them a chance to flex their legislative muscle.

First, they turned their attention to a change Gov. Chris Christie made to the state’s handgun-permit process. Enacted unilaterally through regulation, the modification conflicts, they say, with the legislative intent of New Jersey’s strict gun laws. The Democratic-controlled Assembly voted to take Christie, a second-term Republican, to court to uphold the Legislature’s constitutional authority to write laws.

Second, the Democrats moved a bill that would require presidential candidates on the ballot in New Jersey to release their federal tax returns, something President Donald Trump did not do last year, breaking with decades of tradition. Though Republicans claimed the measure would violate the U.S. Constitution, Democrats moved ahead, citing the constitution’s delegation of some general-election powers to the states.

Yesterday’s jockeying on both state and federal constitutional issues came as Democrats in New Jersey have struggled in recent weeks to counter the Republican president on issues like his recent travel ban and crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Trump did not win New Jersey in the 2016 presidential election and public-opinion polls suggest he remains unpopular. But with all 120 state legislative seats up for grabs this November, Republicans have been trying desperately to shift the focus back to state issues like property taxes and education funding.

Christie not expected to sign bill

Christie — who endorsed Trump and was at one point in the running to become his vice president — is not expected to sign the tax-return bill, which passed the Senate earlier this week. But since the next presidential election won’t be held until 2020, the measure could be reintroduced after Christie leaves office early next year.

Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) said several states have proposed measures that would make the release of federal income-tax returns a requirement to appear on the ballot. New Jersey’s bill would require candidates to provide returns going back five years to the state Division of Elections, and would prohibit Electoral College electors from voting for a candidate who has not complied. McKeon cited comments made recently by Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe after a similar proposal was introduced in Massachusetts as indicating such a change would be constitutional.

“Our Constitution talks about the states having latitude as it relates to electors,” McKeon said.

But Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris) said the Constitution is clear that presidential candidates are only required to be 35 years old, natural-born citizens, and 14-year residents of the United States.

“That’s it,” Webber said. “This body, the New Jersey State Senate, and the governor of New Jersey has no authority to add additional requirements to who can run for president of the United States.”

Compel state lawmakers to meet same standards?

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) also attempted to add an amendment to compel state lawmakers to meet the same tax-return disclosure standards spelled out in the bill, but his effort was quickly rejected by majority Democrats.

After the session ended, Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) said that he isn’t certain Christie will reject the measure, but if the governor does, Prieto said it’s still important to “start the ball rolling.”

“I think we’re the first (state) to get it to a governor’s desk,” Prieto said.

Christie, meanwhile, will have no say on the resolution authorizing legislative leaders to take court action on the gun-permit issue. That’s because an amendment to the state constitution that was approved by voters in 1992 allows lawmakers to strike down regulatory changes if they conflict with legislative intent.

The resolution passed the Senate earlier this week, meaning Prieto and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) can file suit at any time to enforce the state constitution. Another resolution declaring Christie’s proposal to be at odds with legislative intent has already been passed by both houses.

‘Job banding’ rule overturned

The two leaders used the same legal process to overturn a rule adopted by Christie’s administration in 2014 that sought to make it easier for department heads to promote state employees by putting them in similar “job bands” instead of using competitive testing. The latter has been a hallmark of the civil-service system in New Jersey. The state Superior Court’s Appellate Division vacated the Christie administration’s action on the job-banding issue in a decision released late last year.

Christie announced the regulatory change to the handgun-permit process last week, following a 60-day comment period. The change makes it easier for those applying for a handgun in New Jersey to demonstrate a “justifiable need” to arm themselves, shifting the burden from a “specific” threat to a “serious” threat. It was proposed by a special commission Christie put in place in 2015 just before he announced his own presidential candidacy.

Bramnick portrayed the change as being a “minor adjustment” to the current permit process, and Webber called it “modest” and “reasonable,” citing the specific benefit that it could provide victims of domestic violence.

But Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) countered by encouraging Webber to join efforts to make changes to support domestic-violence victims through the legislative process.

“I think that it makes our communities less than rather than more safe,” Singleton said. “We shouldn’t create a scenario where our communities are less safe.”

Prieto told reporters after the voting session ended that the real issue is about enforcing the specific roles spelled out in the state constitution for each branch of government.

“It wasn’t voting on the gun issue,” Prieto said. “It was about being a coequal branch of government.”

“We are a coequal branch of the government and now we are going to a different branch of the government, the Judiciary,” he said.