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Ruling: Dems can replace Torricelli

By John P. McAlpin The Associated Press
Thursday October 03, 2002

TRENTON, N.J. – Giving hope to Democrats scrambling to retain control of the Senate, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday that the party can replace Sen. Robert Torricelli on the November ballot.  

Whether the decision will allow Democrats to replace Torricelli with former Sen. Frank Lautenberg remained to be seen. 

Republican officials have promised to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. There was no immediate response to the ruling from the GOP.  

The court cited previous rulings that said election law should be broadly interpreted to allow parties to put their candidates on the ballot, and most importantly, “to allow the voters a choice.” 

Allowing the Democrats to replace Torricelli, the justices said, was a move “in favor of a full and fair ballot choice for the voters of New Jersey.” 

The court fight over who will appear on the ballot is key: Democrats hold a single-seat majority in the Senate. 

The dispute erupted after Torricelli dropped out of the race Monday, saying his campaign had been overwhelmed by ethics questions. He was admonished over the summer by a Senate committee for allegedly taking lavish campaign gifts from a contributor to his 1996 campaign.  

Late Tuesday, top state Democrats settled on the 78-year-old Lautenberg as their substitute candidate. 

Republicans argued it is too close to Election Day to replace Torricelli and that Democrats shouldn't be allowed to dump a candidate who was trailing GOP nominee Douglas Forrester in the polls. 

Republican officials did say they planned to file a motion in federal court Thursday to block any move that would alter ballots already sent to military personnel and civilians overseas.  

The GOP also wants a federal judge to compel the state to immediately mail out any remaining absentee ballots, which have been held up under a state court order. 

The state's highest court said the state Democratic Party must pay for ballots to be reprinted. State election officials estimate it will cost about $800,000 to do that.  

For nearly three hours Wednesday, the seven justices — four Democrats, two Republicans and one independent — peppered lawyers, state election officials and even some third-party candidates with detailed questions.  

They questioned whether it was possible this late in the game to print and pay for new ballots, and whether it was fair to bend the rules to accommodate the Democrats' request.  

“Here we have a candidate, he's capable, he's able, he's just changed his mind about running,” Associate Justice Jaynee LaVecchia said.  

John Carbone, an attorney representing the county clerks, said time was critical.  

"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.  

Democratic lawyer Angelo J. Genova told the court that Torricelli is no longer the party's choice, and voters should not be forced to check his name and hope a replacement would be selected later.  

“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 said.  

Republicans pointed to state law, which says replacement candidates must be named 51 days before an election; Torricelli withdrew 36 days before Election Day.  

“I believe the statute should be enforced as it presently reads. We don't believe there are any extraordinary circumstances,” said Peter Sheridan, the lawyer Forrester.  

While Democrats waited for the court to act, they planned Lautenberg's campaign and negotiated the transfer of funds and operations from Torricelli's operation. A kickoff party was scheduled for Wednesday evening.  

Still, there are concerns that New Jersey's election would be decided in federal court, as Florida's was during the 2000 presidential race.