New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Com'n v. Citizens to Make Mayor-Council Government Work

Decision Date25 June 1987
Citation526 A.2d 1069,107 N.J. 380
CourtNew Jersey Supreme Court

Edward J. Farrell, Morristown, for appellant (Farrell, Curtis Carlin & Davidson, attorneys; Edward J. Farrell and Cynthia H. Reinhard, on the brief).

Oscar N. Gaskins, Cherry Hill, for respondent.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by


In this case, the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission seeks to impose sanctions on respondent for its failure to comply with the provisions of the Campaign Contributions and Expenditures Reporting Act, N.J.S.A. 19:44A-1 to -44 (the Act). The Appellate Division concluded that respondent, an organization formed to collect signatures on a petition advocating a recall election, was a "political committee" under N.J.S.A. 19:44A-3i, and was therefore responsible for the timely filing of all reports required by the Act. 208 N.J.Super. 583, 586-87, 506 A.2d 773 (1986). Noting that the issue was one of "first impression," the court gave its ruling prospective effect only, and declined to enforce the Act's penalties against respondent. Id. at 588, 506 A.2d 773. Because we view this case as one in which the usual application of a statute is appropriate, we reverse in part the judgment of the Appellate Division, and remand for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.


Respondent, Citizens to Make Mayor-Council Government Work (respondent or Citizens), was organized in February 1983 to collect signatures on petitions seeking the recall of the Mayor of Atlantic City. Respondent's activities ceased in December 1983, when the recall issue was certified as a ballot question. A special election was subsequently held on March 13, 1984, in which the residents of Atlantic City voted on the question, "Shall Michael J. Matthews Be Removed From Office By Recall?" The parties have stipulated that respondent received contributions and incurred expenditures in excess of $1,000 in connection with the recall campaign. All such monies were deposited into, and paid out of, a campaign depository account maintained in respondent's name.

On March 5, 1984, eight days before the recall election, the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC or Commission) notified Citizens by letter that it was required to file campaign finance reports detailing the activity in its account. Respondent did not file its pre-election report until May 18th, some 66 days after the election. The report disclosed contributions and expenditures for the period February 25, 1983 to December 5, 1983, as well as the balance in the account at the end of the period. Respondent has yet to file a post-election report setting forth the disposition of this balance. 1

On July 23, 1984, ELEC filed a complaint charging Citizens with failing to file its pre-election and post-election finance reports within the time required by law. N.J.S.A. 19:44A-8, -16. The complaint also charged respondent with omitting from its pre-election report the names of nine contributors whose donations exceeded $100 each. At a subsequent hearing an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) agreed that respondent had a reporting obligation under the Act, and recommended imposition of fines totaling $600 (to be halved if paid within thirty days). He also ruled that the nine unidentified contributions totaling $9,390 be treated as anonymous contributions that escheat to the State pursuant to N.J.S.A. 19:44A-11, and ordered payment of these monies within thirty days. These findings and recommendations were adopted by ELEC on May 20, 1985.

On appeal, the Appellate Division held that respondent was properly found to be within the coverage of the Act's reporting requirements. 208 N.J.Super. at 586-87, 506 A.2d 773. It nonetheless reversed the ALJ's ruling because of its view that respondent, "acting without the guidance of this opinion, might reasonably not have so understood the statute." Id. at 588, 506 A.2d 773. In giving its opinion prospective effect, the court also emphasized the "penal nature" of the Act. Ibid. We granted certification, 104 N.J. 442, 517 A.2d 432 (1986), limited solely to the question whether the Appellate Division's interpretation of the New Jersey campaign finance law should have been applied in this litigation.


A threshold issue in this case concerns the applicability of the Campaign Contributions and Expenditures Reporting Act to respondent. Before the Appellate Division, Citizens argued that it should not be held subject to the Act's reporting requirements. The group contended that it was not a "political committee" under the Act, because it did not "aid or promote the passage or defeat of a public question in [an] election * * *." N.J.S.A. 19:44A-3i. 2 Instead, its activities were confined to placing a recall question before the Atlantic City voters.

We agree with the Appellate Division that respondent's argument ignores the fundamental purposes of the Act. 208 N.J.Super. at 586, 506 A.2d 773. In enacting the election-finance laws, the Legislature's objective was to fix the "glare of the public spotlight" on all activities intended to affect the political process in this State. Hearing on Senate Bill No. 1124 Before the Assembly Judiciary Comm. (hereinafter Assembly Hearing ), at 4 (1973) (statement of Sen. Schluter); see also New Jersey Election Law Revision Comm'n, Report to the Governor and Legislature, at 3 (1970) ("Stringent disclosure requirements on every aspect of political financing must be imposed and enforced"); New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce v. New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Comm'n, 135 N.J.Super. 537, 544, 343 A.2d 796 (Ch.Div.1975) ("The manifest objective of the New Jersey Campaign [Contributions] and Expenditures Reporting Act is to identify and attempt to regulate the significant flow of substantial wealth aimed at affecting the outcome of elections, public questions and the legislative process."), rev'd on other grounds, 155 N.J.Super. 218, 382 A.2d 670 (App.Div.1977), modified on other grounds, 82 N.J. 57, 411 A.2d 168 (1980). This broad legislative purpose, which was incorporated by the Legislature into the body of the Act, see N.J.S.A. 19:44A-2, is evident in the remarks of Senator William Schluter, a sponsor of the original legislation:

The concept, unanimously recommended by the Election Law Revision Commission, is one involving disclosure. Most importantly, any bill which is to be effective in this area must plug up all of the loopholes. [Assembly Hearing at 4 (Statement of Sen. Schluter).]

Respondent's interpretation of the Act would exclude from its reporting requirements a significant number of political committees that restricted their activities to the circulation of petitions advocating elections to recall officials or to decide other public questions. We cannot conceive, in light of the history and plain language of the Act, that the Legislature intended to limit the reach of the Act's disclosure requirements in such a manner. As the Appellate Division observed, "[i]t would defy logic to find a legislative concern with the recall election but not with the preliminary petition effort * * * [which] is as much a part of the overall electoral process as the voting itself." 208 N.J.Super. at 586, 506 A.2d 773. 3 Moreover, in view of the significant efforts required to place the recall question on the ballot, it is obvious that respondent's activities were intended to "aid or promote the passage" of the recall question. We therefore conclude that respondent was properly found to be a "political committee" under the Act.


In considering the prospective application of the Appellate Division's ruling, we acknowledge that retroactivity questions are " 'among the most difficult' problems that engage the attention of courts * * *." Coons v. American Honda Motor Co., 96 N.J. 419, 424-25, 476 A.2d 763 (1984) (Coons II ) (quoting Chicot County Drainage Dist. v. Baxter State Bank, 308 U.S. 371, 374, 60 S.Ct. 317, 319, 84 L.Ed. 329, 333 (1940)), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 1123, 105 S.Ct. 808, 83 L.Ed.2d 800 (1985). Although retroactive application of judicial decisions is the general rule, see Rutherford Educ. Ass'n v. Rutherford Bd. of Educ., 99 N.J. 8, 21, 489 A.2d 1148 (1985); Mirza v. Filmore Corp., 92 N.J. 390, 396, 456 A.2d 518 (1983), we accord our rulings prospective effect in cases where the interests of justice mandate such an approach. See, e.g., Coons II, supra, 96 N.J. 419, 476 A.2d 763; Salorio v. Glaser, 93 N.J. 447, 461 A.2d 1100 (1983); Cogliati v. Ecco High Frequency Corp., 92 N.J. 402, 456 A.2d 524 (1983); Spiewak v. Rutherford Bd. of Educ., 90 N.J. 63, 447 A.2d 140 (1982); Merenoff v. Merenoff, 76 N.J. 535, 560, 388 A.2d 951 (1978).

When confronted with a request to apply a decision prospectively, a court may follow one of four distinct alternatives:

(1) make the new rule of law purely prospective, applying it only to cases whose operative facts arise after the new rule is announced; (2) apply the new rule to future cases and to the parties in the case announcing the new rule, while applying the old rule to all other pending and past litigation; (3) grant the new rule limited retroactivity, applying it to cases in (1) and (2) as well as to pending cases where the parties have not yet exhausted all avenues of direct review; and, finally, (4) give the new rule complete retroactive effect, applying it to all cases, even those where final judgments have been entered and all avenues of direct review exhausted. [State v. Burstein, 85 N.J. 394, 403, 427 A.2d 525 (1981) (citing State v. Nash, 64 N.J. 464, 468-70, 317 A.2d 689 (1974)).]

In choosing between these options, the court must weigh considerations of fairness to the litigants as well as the dictates of sound public policy. See Rutherford, supra, 99 N.J. 8, 22,...

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