Dems in Court to Replace Torricelli
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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) _ Democrats fighting a crucial battle for control of the U.S. Senate told the state’s top court Wednesday it isn’t too late to replace Sen. Robert Torricelli’s name on the ballot.
Republicans argued that state law is clear: Candidates cannot be replaced on the ballot if they drop out within 51 days of the election. Torricelli dropped out with 36 days left.
Leaving Torricelli’s name on the Nov. 5 ballot would only confuse voters, said Angelo J. Genova, a lawyer for state Democrats.
``I think he has withdrawn, I think he has effectively created a vacancy by his withdrawal. He’s not a candidate. He’s not a candidate for public office,″ Genova told the state Supreme Court.
Genova said the intent of the 51-day rule is meant solely to ensure there is enough time to prepare ballots. Only about 1,600 ballots have been mailed, and there’s enough time to make new ones, Genova said.
But Peter Sheridan, attorney for Republican candidate Douglas Forrester, said: ``I believe the statute should be enforced as it presently reads. We don’t believe there are any extraordinary circumstances.″
State Attorney General David Samson told the justices _ four Democrats, two Republicans and one independent _ that replacing Torricelli on the ballot would be inconvenient and costly but ``administratively feasible.″
John Carbone, an attorney representing the state’s 21 county clerks, said any change would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
``If we go beyond Wednesday of next week, Tuesday of next week, it’s not going to be doable no matter how deep the pockets,″ Carbone said.
The hearing came a day after Democratic leaders named 78-year-old former Sen. Frank Lautenberg as their preference to replace Torricelli, who dropped out of the race amid ethics questions.
The seven justices have agreed to let attorneys sidestep lower courts and argue on whether Democrats can switch names on the ballot.
Republicans say adding Lautenberg’s name would allow parties to replace candidates as elections neared simply because they feared losing.
Democrats say decades of state court decisions put voters’ rights above filing deadlines and other technical guidelines.
Samson, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey, said in written arguments Tuesday that the justices have the power to relax the deadline and allow Democrats to post another candidate so voters would have more choice.
Some legal experts agreed.
``It’s almost as if the arguing parties _ the Democrats and Republicans _ are irrelevant in the legal analysis,″ said Richard Perr, an election law professor at Rutgers University Law School. ``The focus is on the voters right to cast a meaningful vote and they can’t do that if only one name is on the ballot.″
Although Democrats have a majority on the state’s highest court, six of the seven justices were appointed by former Republican Gov. Christie Whitman, who maintained a long tradition among New Jersey governors of keeping the court politically balanced.
McGreevey chose Lautenberg to replace Torricelli after a full day of meetings with top state Democrats. He said Lautenberg’s legislative record and stand on social issues followed the party line.
Lautenberg, who retired two years ago, said he was ready to run.
``None of the enthusiasm has died,″ Lautenberg said. ``I will fight just as hard. I am just as energized.″
``When it comes to Mr. Lautenberg, the voters are going to say, ’Been there, done that,‴ said Bill Pascoe, Forrester’s campaign manager. ``It’s time for new leadership.″
The Democrats are defending their one-seat advantage in the Senate in midterm elections. Torricelli’s re-election bid capsized when a poll put him down 13 points after months of news about illegal campaign donations and improper gifts.
Sen. William Frist, chairman of the Senate GOP campaign committee, said Republicans would consider appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court if the New Jersey court rules in favor of Democrats.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said that by objecting to Torricelli’s request, Republicans were ``denying the people of New Jersey a choice.″
Five months ago, Torricelli’s Senate seat was considered relatively safe. But support plummeted after he was admonished by the Senate ethics committee for his relationship with a 1996 campaign supporter, and he soon became the most vulnerable incumbent in the country.
Businessman David Chang said he gave Torricelli expensive gifts in return for Torricelli’s intervention in business deals in North and South Korea.
Seven people pleaded guilty to making illegal donations to Torricelli’s campaign in 1996. Federal prosecutors investigated Torricelli but decided not to file charges against him.
Torricelli said he had not done everything he was accused of doing. He apologized to voters in a television commercial, but the damage was already done.
Lautenberg is a supporter of abortion rights and staunch opponent of the death penalty. The former business executive brings two major strengths to the bid: statewide name recognition and a huge reserve of personal wealth.
He and Torricelli feuded openly while serving together, but Lautenberg said he wasn’t dwelling on the irony.
``I’m not in a gloating mode,″ Lautenberg said. ``I don’t want to be smug about this. It was unfortunate for him and an unfortunate thing for all of us.″
On the Net:
Forrester campaign: http://www.forrester2002.com
New Jersey Democrats: http://www.njdems.org