This Week’s Trenton Musings….

Lawlessness in NJ Assembly

July 25, 2014

Dear ______,

We found out last week that a serious constitutional violation took place in the NJ Assembly under the knowing direction of Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora. Everyone in New Jersey should be seriously troubled by this action.

What happened? On Friday, July 11 at 5 p.m., Speaker Prieto called the Assembly into session from its summer recess for a (very unusual) quorum call. Only Mr. Gusciora showed up. He chaired the “meeting,” during which the Speaker’s office instructed legislative staffers to walk through the chamber and vote “present” at the desks of 69 absent members. The legislature wants to put a constitutional amendment reforming New Jersey’s bail laws on the ballot in November, and Speaker Prieto planned to hand out the proposed amendment at this meeting. The purpose of the false votes was to create a false record of attendance in order to satisfy a requirement in the state constitution that amendments be given to legislators 20 calendar days before the first vote on the matter. The 20-day requirement is meant to provide lead time for legislators and the public to be adequately informed before proposed amendments come to a vote. In addition, the General Assembly’s rules state that members must be in the chamber to answer a quorum call and vote on anything. Yet at least two Assembly members who were recorded as present told the Star-Ledger that they were not, and that they did not know someone had voted for them. Matt Friedman and Brent Johnson of the Star-Ledger broke the story here.

To avoid confusion, it is not clear that bail reform amendment has anything wrong with it as a policy matter. Its ideas may be perfectly benign. However, it is also not clear that bail reform needs to be accomplished by constitutional amendment in the first place. Why can’t we reform our bail laws by ordinary legislation? We do it all the time with other administrative matters, and Governor Christie suggested doing as much with bail reform as recently as June. So far this question hasn’t been raised in the press or answered by any officials. But even if Speaker Prieto’s conduct had been above board, one could question why he is taking the constitutional amendment route at all.

It doesn’t really matter whether the bail reform amendment is any good or not in this case, because Speaker Prieto’s actions disregarded the NJ Constitution for political convenience in a way that would have removed the matter from the public eye were it not for the intervention of the press. The NJ Constitution allows “a majority of the members present [to] send the Sergeant-at-Arms, or any other authorized person, with a warrant, for absent members.” So if Prieto really wanted everyone there, he could have made it happen. However, in the middle of July when Speaker Prieto is fully aware that many of his members have left for vacation and are not in the state and possibly not in the country, scheduling a quorum call brings suspicion to his motives and tactics. Furthermore, a spokesman for the Assembly Democrats told the press that the event was a “standard quorum call based on past practice”—which adds insult to injury.

The Constitution matters, and the desire to “get things done” is never supposed to take precedence over transparency provisions and other guarantees that protect our rights. The sloppier legislators get with protective procedures, the more likely we are to see things “getting done” that are outright illegitimate. Flagrant disregard for the constitution of our state and the rule of law is lawlessness.
If you haven’t contacted your Assembly member yet, please do so today. Email or call your Assembly members to make them aware of what happened, your objection to the abuse, and your request for an investigation to hold those responsible accountable for their actions. Ask your legislator if they were one of the assembly members who were counted as present and what they think of the action. Then email or phone the Speaker (AsmPrieto@njleg.org, 201.770.1303) and the Minority Leader of the Assembly (AsmBramnick@njleg.org, 908.232.2073) to express your objection to this violation of transparency and trust.

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