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Judge to rule on push to dismiss lawsuit lodged by election watchdog against Gov. Murphy

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Judge to rule on push to dismiss lawsuit lodged by election watchdog against Gov. Murphy

Dec 01, 2023 | 9:29 pm ET
By Nikita Biryukov
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Judge to rule on push to dismiss lawsuit lodged by election watchdog against Gov. Murphy
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Jeffrey Brindle, the longtime Election Law Enforcement Commission director who retired on Nov. 1, claims a new law was engineered to force his ouster. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

A Superior Court judge will decide next week whether to dismiss a lawsuit that alleges provisions of a recent overhaul of New Jersey’s campaign finance law unconstitutionally targeted the state’s campaign finance regulator as part of a conspiracy to remove its longtime director.

The suit, lodged in state Superior Court in Mercer County in April, targets sections of the Elections Transparency Act that allowed for a one-time change to how the governor appoints members of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. Jeffrey Brindle, the longtime director who retired on Nov. 1, claims the change was engineered to force his ouster.

Bruce Afran, Brindle’s attorney, in oral arguments before Judge Robert Lougy on Friday charged those provisions are unconstitutional because they followed a campaign, which he called illegal, to force Brindle’s ouster.

“We have multiple illegal acts, and they’re bluntly illegal because the governor is — outside of the public record, behind the scenes — attempting to remove Brindle or force him out,” Afran said.

In legal filings, Brindle has claimed Gov. Phil Murphy’s push for his ouster was motivated by a satirical column he penned lampooning certain independent expenditure groups.

The column suggested would-be candidates of means would be best served by launching independent expenditure groups to build credibility with party officials and shed burdensome disclosure requirements imposed on candidates and parties. First Lady Tammy Murphy, who is now running for the U.S. Senate, chaired one such group: Stronger Fairer Forward, a politically active nonprofit that has spent millions boosting the governor’s legislative agenda.

Brindle claims senior administration officials demanded his resignation in November 2022 and threatened to release an email Brindle sent to an ELEC staffer in which he mocked National Coming Out Day. The email was later leaked to the press.

After Brindle refused to resign, the lawsuit charges administration officials pressured Election Law Enforcement Commission members to remove Brindle. When that failed, the Elections Transparency Act was amended to allow the governor to fire the commission’s executive director, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the campaign finance regulator.

Those amendments drew concerns about gubernatorial interference in campaign finance investigations, and lawmakers eventually approved a version with separate provisions that allowed Murphy to install a new slate of commissioners without having to seek Senate approval. The new commissioners, Brindle has alleged, would be tasked with sacking him.

“We can’t ignore this pattern, which demonstrates an illicit purpose of the bill,” Afran said.

Peter Slocum, a lawyer representing Murphy, said the case should be dismissed because the Legislature created the Election Law Enforcement Commission and was well within its authority to change how the agency’s commissioners are appointed.

“Unless the constitution says otherwise, then the power to determine how appointments are made shall be made, quote, ‘by law,’” he said. “That’s really what the Legislature here did: They determined that ELEC, which is a creation of the Legislature, should have its commissioners appointed in a particular way, by law.”

Lougy said he will decide whether to dismiss the case next week.