1-person quorum aids N.J. proposal

Some called the move on proposed amendment unconstitutional, others described it as routine.

Posted: July 16, 2014

TRENTON - Facing a tight window to get a constitutional amendment modifying the right to bail on the ballot in November, the Assembly on Friday took a little-noticed procedural step to move the proposal forward.

The 80-member chamber, controlled by Democrats, needed to establish a quorum - a minimum number of members present to take action - to ensure that the amendment spent the requisite number of days in each house before a full vote could be held.

However, only one member, Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), the presiding officer, was actually present. Assembly staff nevertheless recorded a 70-member quorum.

A legislator whose presence was counted without his knowledge said the action raised constitutional concerns.

The amendment would allow judges to order pretrial detention without bail for certain defendants, based upon concerns that, if released, the defendants would not return to court; would present a danger to the community; or would attempt to obstruct justice.

The Legislature is considering a bill that would allow other defendants to be released before trial without bail.

To make the November ballot, any proposed amendment must pass with a three-fifths vote in both houses of the Legislature three months before Election Day, or by Aug. 4.

The New Jersey constitution requires that the amendments be placed on the desks of the members of each house for 20 days before a full vote.

The Senate advanced the amendment during a session Thursday.

Tom Hester, a spokesman for the Assembly Democrats, described the Assembly's quorum procedure as "very routine."

"As has been past practice, only members who are available in-state" are recorded as present, he said in an e-mail.

Hester added that the quorum call, like others, was "publicly listed and done in public."

The procedural step was first reported by the Newark Star-Ledger over the weekend.

The constitution says: "Each house shall be the judge of elections, returns, and qualifications of its own members, and a majority of all its members shall constitute a quorum to do business," adding that absent members can be compelled to attend.

Assembly rules contain similar language: "Forty-one or more members shall constitute a quorum." Without a quorum, a majority of those present may "send the sergeant-at-arms, or any other authorized person, with a warrant," to demand the attendance of absent members.

"The spirit of the rules were certainly complied with," Gusciora said. "It was to do the better good of getting real legislation that took so long in the making to get posted, in order for us to get it on the ballot in November."

Jim Wilson, assistant legislative counsel for the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, said he interpreted the rules to mean "they need 41 or more members actually there to constitute a quorum to do business."

The Legislature often conducts business, such as receiving committee reports, after the end of a voting session - at which point most members have left - provided that a quorum had been established earlier.

When the houses meet regularly, members are often recorded as present if they are known to be at the Statehouse, such as in a committee meeting.

That wasn't the case on Friday, when few legislators were in Trenton. The Legislature is less active during the summer.

"I can say with a fair degree of certainty that I was nowhere near Trenton at any time on Friday, and I pity anyone who looks enough like me to pass," said Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R., Morris), who was among those counted as present.

"To mark us in when we're not around strikes me as being on the cusp of fraud," he said. "It's a constitutional technicality. The constitution sets certain rules and regulations, and those should be strictly followed. If we deviate because of convenience, that means the constitution doesn't mean anything. We don't have the right to do that."

Whatever the case, the Assembly has held similar quorum calls under the leadership of both parties for a long time, Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R., Union) said.

"Nothing was out of the ordinary on this," he said. "I can't tell you technically whether it's correct or not. But it's been going on."

"I've never heard anybody raise any issues," Bramnick added. "I'm not going to criticize [Speaker] Vinnie Prieto for something that's been going on for 10, 15, 20 years even."

Assemblyman John J. Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), the sponsor of legislation accompanying the amendment, said the procedural move was a matter of "routine business."


aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846

@AndrewSeidman

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