Author Archive: Scott Weingart

What’s wrong with Wiz

Yesterday, rumors that the state party chair proposed a map which would force two progressive State Senators into a primary enraged progressives and provoked a caustic response from this blog. The district contained three towns—Woodbridge, Edison, and Metuchen—and two State Senators—Barbara Buono and Joe Vitale. The idea wasn’t an original one. A Woodbridge-Edison district is probably the most feasible way to make the Perth Amboy-New Brunswick district work, and that district is a priority of Hispanic organizations seeking to increase that group’s representation in the legislature.  more below

Girgenti looking for houses in Paterson?

Edit: A federal district court found in 2001 that New Jersey’s legislative district residency requirement violated the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution, so much of what’s in this diary is incorrect. Girgenti can move to Paterson to run in the 35th district if he wants. Whether he is serious or merely bluffing about moving is another matter entirely. If he does “move” to Paterson before he submits his petition (on which he certify that he is a resident of the district in which he is running), someone should check to make sure the address submitted actually exists and that Girgenti is actually residing there. I leave the original diary below the fold.

Special Master finds Christie cuts hurt poor schools; Republican senator whines

Judge Peter Doyne, the special master appointed by the New Jersey Supreme Court to handle ongoing Abbott v. Burke litigation, issued an opinion earlier today finding that students in poor urban schools suffered the greatest impact from school funding cuts to poor urban schools in Chris Christie’s first budget. Doyne distills the record, which is thousands of pages long, and his findings of fact on page 93 of the opinon:

1. If the SFRA formula had been fully funded for FY 11 an additional $1.6 billion would have been required;

2. Despite the State’s best efforts, the reductions fell more heavily upon our high risk districts and the children educated within those districts;  

3. The aid reductions have moved many districts further away from “adequacy”; and

4. The greatest impact of the reductions fell upon our at risk students.

The special master’s hearings and opinion constitute the record upon which the Supreme Court will base its decision in this most recent round of the Abbott litigation, and the court is likely to give a great deal of weight to his recommendations. Barring a dramatic shift in the court’s approach to school funding cases, the court will probably declare Christie’s cuts unconstitutional.

Most Republicans realized that the special master is simply doing his job—namely, answering the questions the Supreme Court asked him by finding facts based on evidence applying the law as set out in statute and caselaw—and therefore directed most of their criticism at the Supreme Court. But one Republican State Senator aimed his infantile rant against the ruling not only at the State Supreme Court, but the special master as well. That Senator is Mike Doherty, and as a lawyer, he should know better. He must understand that the Special Master, like lower court judges, has no authority to overrule the State Supreme Court or ignore its opinions. Yet Doherty would have the Special Master disregard a quarter century of precedent from the same Supreme Court that appointed him.

Doherty may think the Abbott cases are bad precedent. He’s entitled to his own opinion, one that the Christie administration surely shares and will probably argue before the State Supreme Court. But he shouldn’t attack the special master in the press for doing his job.

Race and Redistricting: What the Voting Rights Act means for New Jersey

Redistricting is a partisan activity. Democrats want to elect more Democrats, and Republicans want to elect more Republicans. Incumbents want to be re-elected, and good government advocates often want more competitive elections. But much of the public debate surrounding redistricting focuses not on partisanship, but on race. Why is this?

The main reason so much of redistricting battle centers around race is that a federal law regulates how New Jersey can draw its legislative and congressional districts. That law is the Voting Rights Act of 1965, or the VRA for short. The VRA includes many sections and provisions, but the part that is relevant to New Jersey’s redistricting fight is Section 2. Section 2 prohibits discriminatory voting practices, including vote dilution. The leading Supreme Court case on Section 2, Thornburg v. Gingles, set out a three-part test to determine whether the method (usually a legislative district map of some kind) used by a state, county, or local government in electing representatives to a governing body dilutes minority votes:

1. Is the minority group sufficiently large such that a geographically compact, single-member minority-majority district is possible?

2. Is the minority group politically cohesive?

3. Does racial bloc voting by the white majority enable it to defeat the minority group’s preferred candidate?

If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, then the vote dilution claim succeeds and the method or map in question is illegal. If the answer to one of these questions is no, the vote dilution claim fails and the method or map in question is legal.

Below the fold, I explore further the Gingles vote dilution standard and attempt to explain the impact Section 2 might have on redistricting at the state, county, and even local level in New Jersey. I make no normative arguments in this diary because I believe that, to understand the debate surrounding redistricting, it is important to understand the law governing it. The threat of litigation under the VRA affects line-drawing strategies of both Democrats and Republicans in redistricting. Politicians, leaders of minority groups, pundits, tea partiers, and other interested parties also deploy the VRA as a rhetorical weapon in the battle over redistricting. In doing so, some may overstate or understate its power to serve their own political goals. But who actually has a bullet in the chamber, and who is merely making empty legal assertions? Follow me below the fold to find out.

When bad science makes bad policy: “conscience-based” vaccine exemptions

On Tuesday, the Assembly Health Committee heard testimony on a radical proposal that would exempt from immunization requirments children whose parents have “conscientious objections” to vaccinations. The bill, introduced by Charlotte Vandervalk and cosponsored 20 other members of the Assembly, would undermine New Jersey’s current and longstanding policy requiring immunization of children attending a school or child care facility in the state.

A the hearing, committee chairman Herb Conaway blocked the bill by refusing to hold a vote on it. Conaway, a physician, called the proposal a “recipe for disaster.” Dr. Conaway is right.

Currently, New Jersey permits only religious exemptions from its vaccine requirements. This bill would allow an exemption to children whose parents sign a form that says that they “understand[] the potential benefits of immunization and the risks in not immunizing.” The statement accompanying the bill reveals its true implications:

This bill would allow New Jersey to join with other states that grant individuals the right to manage their health or their children’s health as they deem appropriate. (emphasis added)

This statement is utterly incompatible with a policy of mandatory immunization. If we allow parents to evade immunization requirements on the grounds that they are “manag[ing] their … children’s health as they deem appropriate,” we will subordinate the state’s vaccination requirement to each parent’s decision about whether getting their children vaccinated against a particular disease is worth the costs and the percieved risks. The very purpose of a mandatory vaccination policy is to take this decision out of parents’ hands.

The biggest supporters of the bill back it because they believe that the medical consensus on vaccines is incorrect. They believe that vaccines cause, or at least contribute to, autism. Scientists, doctors, and public health officials overwhelmingly reject this conclusion, and the vast majority of studies have found no link between vaccinations and autism. The anti-vaccine movement has caused vaccination rates to drop, which may be linked with recent outbreaks of pertussis (whooping cough).

What the supporters of the bill are asking for is truly extraordinary. They want the state to exempt from a regulation those who disagree with the policy findings behind that regulation. Needless to say, we rarely allow people to avoid regulation simply because they they think it is bad policy. Schoolchildren who refuse to take the state standardized test are not allowed to graduate, even if they refused because they think the state’s test is flawed. If a zoning board denies you a variance to build a shed on your property, you cannot build the shed anyway simply because you think the policies underlying the zoning ordinance is dumb. “I’m a skilled driver who can travel safely at 100 MPH,” is no defense to a speeding ticket. No lawmaker would seriously propose that the schoolchild, the property-owner, and the speeder should be exempt from regulation because they disagree with the policy.

While the bill’s supporters may portray the bill as a narrow exception, in reality, the bill undermines the state’s mandatory immunization policy. Make no mistake, the debate over this bill is really a debate over whether we should require immunizations to begin with. New Jersey’s mandatory immunization policy has served the state well, and I think we should keep it. If we do change the policy, we should not change it based on the misinformation spread by the anti-vaccine movement.

Below the fold, I explore the policy rationales for immunization requirements and present a more detailed description of the anti-vaccine movement.

Andrew Jackson, Roy Moore, Roberto Rivera Soto, and the Rule of Law

On September 15, 2004, at the War Memorial in Trenton, New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto placed his hand on a bible and said,

“I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New Jersey, and that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same and to the Governments established in the United States and in this State, under the authority of the people So help me God.”

The event was only ceremonial—the justice had been formally sworn in two weeks earlier. But it represented an idea that is central to our system of government: the rule of law. We take it for granted that public officials and citizens will respect and follow the courts’ decisions, even when they disagree with them. But it wasn’t always this way.

Musings on the Aitken case: Mandatory minimums and miscarriages of justice

On Monday, Governor Christie popped his pardon cherry by commuting the sentence of Brian Aitken, who was serving 3-7 years in prison for gun possession. I won’t rehash the facts of the case at length because you can find them in the Star Ledger article linked above and elsewhere. Aitken was sentenced under a law passed in 2008 which mandated 3-year minimum sentence for persons convicted of possessing an unlicensed handgun. The prosecutor offered a plea bargain where Aitken would serve 1 year in prison, but Aitken declined. The case went to trial, where Aitken’s lawyers tried to argue that an exception to the state law, which allows people who are moving from one state to another to carry weapons licensed in another state (Aitken had purchased the handguns while living in Colorado), but the judge refused to allow the jury to consider this argument, presumably because Aitken had been living in the state for several months. He was convicted and sentenced to serve a minimum three years in prison as required by law.

Setting aside any errors the trial judge may have made and other procedural issues, this case brings two substantive policy questions to the fore: First, should New Jersey require people to obtain a license to possess a handgun? Second, presuming New Jersey should require a license for handgun possession, should it punish those who do not obtain such a license with a mandatory three-year minimum sentence?

I think almost all readers (and probably all but one or two legislators) would agree. I find the second question far more interesting and pertinent, because it is an instance of .

Musings on the Aitken case: Mandatory minimums and miscarriages of justice

On Monday, Governor Christie popped his pardon cherry by commuting the sentence of Brian Aitken, who was serving 3-7 years in prison for gun possession. I won’t rehash the facts of the case at length because you can find them in the Star Ledger article linked above and elsewhere. Aitken was sentenced under a law passed in 2008 which mandated 3-year minimum sentence for persons convicted of possessing an unlicensed handgun. The prosecutor offered a plea bargain where Aitken would serve 1 year in prison, but Aitken declined. The case went to trial, where Aitken’s lawyers tried to argue that an exception to the state law, which allows people who are moving from one state to another to carry weapons licensed in another state (Aitken had purchased the handguns while living in Colorado), but the judge refused to allow the jury to consider this argument, presumably because Aitken had been living in the state for several months. He was convicted and sentenced to serve a minimum three years in prison as required by law.

Setting aside any errors the trial judge may have made and other procedural issues, this case brings two substantive policy questions to the fore: First, should New Jersey require people to obtain a license to possess a handgun? Second, presuming New Jersey should require a license for handgun possession, should it punish those who do not obtain such a license with a mandatory three-year minimum sentence?

I think almost all readers (and probably all but one or two legislators) would agree. I find the second question far more interesting and pertinent, because it is an instance of .

Dirty Tricks

There’s an old saying: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” The recent story linking NJ-03 “tea party” candidate Peter DeStefano with John Adler’s campaign suggests a revision: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll try to make us fall for anything.”

According to the Courier Post, South Jersey Democratic operative Steve Ayscue and Adler Campaign Manager Geoff Mackler concocted a plot to get Peter DeStefano on the ballot under the slogan “NJ Tea Party” in an effort to draw votes away from Adler’s republican opponent. The article alleges that on May 26, Ayscue and Mackler dispatched democratic volutneers to gather signatures for DeStefano. To be sure, there is nothing illegal about this, and Republicans do this kind of stuff all the time. But that doesn’t make it right.

Adler offered a weak-worded denial to the Philadelphia Inquirer: “I believe in my heart, my people have nothing to do with other candidates.” Other than that, his campaign has said little about the allegations in the last few days, although he told Courier Post back in August, “I know we weren’t part of it. Whatever they did — I know what I do, and I hold my head high about what I do.”

These meek denials are unconvincing. I’m disappointed that Adler would resort to a trick like this, and I’m even more disappointed that he would subsequently lie about it. But I’m not surprised. Adler campaigned as a progressive in 2008 and rode into office on Obama’s coattails, but he abandoned his principles once he took the oath of office. Congressman Adler seems more concerned with appeasing the tea party and garnering campaign contributions from Wall Street than voting in the interests of ordinary families in his district.

I would still rather see Adler win, because Runyan has hitched his wagon to the far-right tea party crowd. Runyan’s campaign has been foundering because he can’t articulate any reason for ordinary people to vote for him other than “I played right tackle for the Eagles, and even made the Pro Bowl once.” He’s taken thousands of dollars in tax breaks for raising a few donkeys and cutting a few trees (remember when the APP rode Ellen Karcher relentlessly for that?), and he doesn’t even pay his taxes on time, even though he can afford it. But I don’t know if I could bring myself to actually vote for Adler. I certainly wouldn’t volunteer for him.

Instead, I’d give my time to Congressman Patrick Murphy and US Senate nominee Joe Sestak in PA, Congressman Rush Holt, or Congressman Frank Pallone.

Cop-out of the week

Earlier this week, the Rutgers Daily Targum ran an editorial entitled “Media exploits University tragedy.” The writer, however, seemed more interested in attacking members of the LGBT community and their allies for “turning his death into a push for gay rights.” How dare gay people express anger over what they view to be a preventable death of a young man who was victimized precisely because he was gay.

The editorial is so horrible that a paragraph can’t do it justice. But RU alum Aurora Schneider offered a good response in the Targum on Thursday. So did Hofstra student journalist Alexi Knock in that school’s newspaper.

Unable to defend the editorial’s substance, Friday Targum columnist Patrick Danner builds himself a straw man instead. Danner picks out the most hyperbolic, offensive comments (out of several hundred), declares them “more disgusting than the crime committed,” and rails for several paragraphs about these anonymous commenters. Only once does he acknowledge those who have offered civil, reasoned criticism of the editorial. If Danner thinks the comments on the Targum page are bad, he should read some of the comments to articles on NJ.com. When you allow people to comment anonymously on your website, and you don’t moderate those comments, you can not reasonably expect all of those comments to be civil. And you shouldn’t waste column inches complaining when your unreasonable expectations aren’t met.