Nearly seven months after its adoption, Jersey City’s controversial ward map had its day in court, appearing before a judge as both sides made oral arguments for and against proceeding with a lawsuit to overturn it, with the judge saying he will render a decision on it, potentially within a week or two.
The two sides appeared before Hudson County Superior Court Judge Joseph Turula at the William J. Brennan Courthouse on Friday, with the plaintiffs’ lawyers arguing that the commission behind the map violated state law and was political retaliation, while an attorney for the commission defended it.
The map had been met with controversy since its adoption back in January over a lack of transparency and accusations of gerrymandering. Councilman Frank Gilmore and a coalition of local groups make up the plaintiffs suing the Jersey City Ward Commission, who drew the map, to overturn it.
The commission, which consists of City Clerk Sean Gallagher and six members from the Hudson County Board of Elections, have defended their map and are seeking a motion to dismiss the case.
A team of four lawyers that includes former Corporation Counsel Bill Matsikoudis from Matsikoudis & Fanciullo represented the plaintiffs in court today, while the commission was represented by Jason Orlando, a former state Deputy Attorney General from Murphy Orlando LLC, a politically-connected law firm.
During the hearing, arguments were had over alleged violations of the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), the effects of the new map on communities of interest, and alleged retaliation against Gilmore.
Orlando had argued that the commission did not violate OPMA, saying that they did not have a meeting in which official action could’ve happened, and even if they did, the Jan. 22 where they adopted the map had served as a “corrective meeting.”
“What the plaintiffs seem to me, just phishing the court, is trying to create an issue where there is none with the hope of getting the relief they desire,” he said.
Turula noted that all seven commissioners had signed certifications that there was no quorum meeting held that wasn’t advertised, and asked the plaintiffs’ lawyers how they violated the law with a quorum.
Brett Pugach of Bromberg Law argued that all meetings have to be open to be public, and that discussing public business of the commission cannot be done without the public present. He pointed to how the first ward map was presented before the canceled Jan. 14 meeting, and was then replaced by the new map that was voted on on Jan. 22.
“The public has no idea what those discussions were” he said. “The case[…]that we presented are very clear that there’s no cure to a violation here just by simply coming here and voting at the next public meeting if the public remains unaware of those meetings and what occurred and what was discussed.”
Both sides then moved onto the impact of the new ward map onto communities of interest. Turula had asked if historic demographics such as those in Bergen-Lafayette, a Black neighborhood, had to be maintained.
Pugach replied that while that race does play a factor, he said that there were common interests such as housing, income, development and environmental concerns that bring people together, and that, he says, is why wards exist.
“When those communities of interest are getting fragmented, and getting torn and split apart and sent into different wards, what it does is it takes away their ability to achieve effective representation and rally around those issues,” he said.
Turula, noting the Paulus Hook neighborhood that was added to Gilmore’s Ward F, asked Pugach if Gilmore or someone else would not be able to represent it, to which Pugach replied that it was more about the electorate and the citizens than the elected official.
Orlando had countered that the wards had to be redrawn because of the population growth in Jersey City, as well as with the population deviation in the previous map. “In doing so, you have to make tough decisions, and there’s thousands of permutations that could’ve been done and successful with the public,” he said.
He also added that “every one of these cases” by the New Jersey Supreme Court has upheld redistricting maps, citing their recent decision to uphold the state’s new congressional map that was drawn to help several Democratic incumbents at risk.
He also argued that if communities of interests are split, they could increase the amount of council members that could advocate for them, and that communities are split “all the time.”
Political retaliation was one of the last main arguments. Renée Steinhagen of New Jersey Appleseed said that the retaliation claims from the old Ward F constituents and Gilmore are related because of the voters getting together to support Gilmore, who last year had unseated Jermaine Robinson, the former incumbent backed by Mayor Steven Fulop.
“We have basically argued these claims is that the ward commission deliberately, intentionally, purposely diluted the weight of certain citizens’ votes to make it more difficult for them to achieve electoral success,” she said, to which she added implicates the First Amendment.
Orlando called the allegations of retaliation “absurd”, and reiterated his previous points on population deviation and the state Supreme Court. “I’m baffled as to what rights have been deprived by this ward map,” he said. “There’s still the right to vote, speak, to associate, petition government.”
At the end of arguments, Turula told the two parties that he will likely make a decision within one or two weeks. “Some will like it, some will not like it, I don’t know what it is at this juncture,” he said.