Court tosses lawsuit to block State House renovation

By Briana Vannozzi

Were New Jersey lawmakers and taxpayers deliberately and unconstitutionally excluded from the governor’s $300 million decision to renovate the State House? That’s what some lawmakers are asserting in Superior Court. But are they too late? Briana Vannozzi is standing by in Trenton. Briana, has the court rendered an opinion?

Vannozzi: Mary Alice, they did, and according to Judge Mary Jacobson they are too late. The lawmakers were seeking to block the $300 million State House renovation. She dismissed the lawsuit on the basis of mootness, basically the bonds were already sold to pay for it so it’s too late. In this hearing, it lasted a little over two hours. Judge Jacobson said from the bench that unraveling these bonds, which are already in the hands of private purchasers would be complicated among other things. It could also be financially detrimental to the state. Now, she cited a previous case, and we won’t get too into the weeds here, but this is from 1997, a case Spadoro v. Whitman, which set a precedent. This was with the pension bond financing act which was also dismissed on the basis of mootness. Basically the bonds were sold in that issue before the courts had decided whether or not they would hear the case. So again we see this case law being applied here. Now, another thing to mention, Congressman Leonard Lance when he was a member of the state Legislature created a constitutional amendment that would prevent any bonding, such as this, to be enacted without voter approval. And the Democratic lawmakers who were in court today, Sen. Ray Lesniak and Assemblyman John Wisniewski, cited that over and over again hoping that the judge would use that. Wisniewski said that this is an issue of speed being your ally in state government. Here’s what some of the lawmakers had to say outside the court house just earlier, right after the judge issued her decision.

Wisniewski: Notwithstanding the fact that something may have already gone beyond the point where it can be undone, there are important constitutional principles at stake here. Can the state of New Jersey, by being clever, by having really good lawyers, by having smart documents, avoid the very constitutional provision that says this year’s Legislature, this year’s government, can’t bind the people of the state of New Jersey in advance without their consent? What the judge basically said in a ruling today is that if you are clever enough, the debt limitation clause doesn’t exist. And that’s troubling for every taxpayer.

Lesniak: We’re not going to be able to stop the work that’s going to be going on. The question is, can we get the Supreme Court to recognize that bond holders take risks, and they took big risks in this case, and they should be held accountable, not the taxpayers of the state of New Jersey.

Vannozzi: So from here the lawmakers will file an appeal. They’ll have 45 days to do so. This is of course largely being seen as a victory for the Christie administration who has defended this project saying it’s badly needed and that this was all handled in a proper and legal way.