A New Jersey state judge awarded Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) a win Monday night, hours before voters head to the polls, ending an impoundment of vote-by-mail ballots in Pascrell's bitter Democratic congressional primary with Rep. Steve Rothman (D-Englewood).
Rothman had requested the impoundment of the 2,000 ballots Friday, citing potential voting irregularities with vote-by-mail ballots in Passaic County and the city of Paterson, Pascrell's home base. Passaic County's chief elections administrator granted Rothman's request Monday. Superior Court Judge Ernest Caposella overturned the impoundment following a Monday evening hearing in Paterson.
“Since deciding to pack up his home and flee the fight against the tea party in favor of initiating a primary against a Democrat, Steve Rothman has proven time and again he will say and do anything for two more years in Congress,” Pascrell campaign manager Justice Myers said in a statement. “This frivolous legal action at taxpayer expense is the cherry on top of Steve Rothman's entire campaign strategy and tonight's court decision to prevent the Rothman campaign's efforts to suppress the vote in Paterson represents another huge victory."
Earlier version of this article is below:
A bitter Democratic primary battle between two sitting members of Congress from New Jersey went to court Monday, nine hours before polls open.
Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) went to Passaic County Superior Court, seeking to overturn the impoundment of 2,000 vote-by-mail ballots, sought by Rep. Steve Rothman (D-Englewood). Pascrell and Rothman, both eight-term congressmen, are battling to represent a new district created by New Jersey's redistricting commission, which cut one district from the Garden State. The close race to represent parts of Bergen, Hudson and Passaic Counties has become increasingly bitter proxy campaign between President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton. A hearing on Pascrell's petition began Monday night.
Rothman's campaign asked Passaic County Elections Superintendent Robert De Mers Jr. on Friday for the impoundment of the voter-by-mail applications, saying potential irregularities existed with the ballots in the county, including in the city of Paterson. Pascrell is a former Paterson mayor and has received strong support from the Passaic County Democratic Party. Rothman's attorney, Kimberly Procopio, wrote that 300 vote-by-mail applications had been rejected and four Rothman mailers to vote-by-mail applicants were returned by the U.S. Postal Service as undeliverable.
Procopio cited a Pascrell campaign office in Paterson advertising vote-by-mail, along with a post on Passaic County Sheriff Richard Berdnik's (D) Facebook page supporting Pascrell. The post, written by Paterson police officer Jeff Heffernan, said, "I've got 125 and counting so far, boss, I think Billy is going to do a lot better than people think."
Procopio argued that county Board of Elections plans to allow examination of names on vote-by-mail ballot envelopes starting at 3 p.m. Monday did not allow enough time to review all the ballots. The names are scheduled to be removed from the envelopes starting Tuesday morning. De Mars ordered impoundment of the ballots on Monday and said no names could be removed from envelopes.
Pascrell's attorneys have asked Superior Court to end the impoundment of ballots. They said Rothman has not sought impoundment of ballots in Bergen or Hudson Counties, where he is perceived to have an advantage. Rothman has represented both counties in Congress and is a former Bergen County surrogate. Pascrell's legal team -- headed by Angelo Genova, one of the top Democratic election attorneys in New Jersey -- argued that De Mars ordered a "drastic" action without evidence. They said he accepted Rothman's ballot estimates and did not force Rothman to produce promised affidavits from those who received vote-by-mail ballots without requesting one.
In letters to De Mars prior to his decision, Genova said an assistant state attorney general had said Passaic County election officials needed to provide proper time for the review of names before they were removed from envelopes. "As set for during our call, the Rothman campaign's request for the counting of ballots is unorthodox, improper and founded upon nothing more than mere speculation," Genova wrote.
As the hearing continued before a judge Monday evening, Pascrell organized a protest in front of the Passaic County Courthouse in Paterson.
The race between the two former friends has become one of the most bitter in recent New Jersey history. Rothman moved to Englewood, where he was mayor in the 1980s, to challenge Pascrell after his home in Fair Lawn was placed in a district with Rep. Scott Garrett (R). The new district is 57 percent of Rothman's former district and 43 percent of Pascrell's. Rothman has claimed that Pascrell is the more conservative of the two, with Pascrell charging that Rothman has misrepresented his record in Congress.
Clinton campaigned on Pascrell's behalf last week, following Pascrell's strong support for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential election. Rothman, the only New Jersey congressman to back Obama in the 2008 primaries, claimed Obama's backing following a White House meeting with the president last week. Obama did not endorse Rothman.
UPDATE: 11:58 p.m. -- This article has been updated with the judge's decision.