A Red-Letter Date in Administrative Law

On February 27, 1950, the Supreme Court of New Jersey decided Handlon v. Town of Belleville, 4 N.J. 99 (1950).  The case was one of the first decided by the Court under what Justice Heher’s majority opinion called “the new classification of ‘Administrative Law.'”  Though the principles established in Handlon may seem obvious now, the case was a landmark when it was decided.

The case arose when plaintiff Handlon was removed from his position as clerk of the local Recorder’s Court for “neglect of duty, incompetency and inefficiency.”  Handlon appealed to the Civil Service Commission (“CSC”), which affirmed the dismissal and then denied Handlon’s motion for reconsideration.  Shortly thereafter, however, the CSC, on its own motion and without notice or a hearing, vacated its previous ruling, voided the dismissal, and substituted a disciplinary penalty.  The Appellate Division found the CSC’s action void since it occurred without notice or hearing.  Handlon appealed to the Supreme Court, which affirmed by a 6-1 vote.

Justice Heher’s opinion established that the CSC, as a quasi-judicial body, had “the inherent power of reconsideration of its judicial acts,” just as courts can reconsider their rulings.  But “[t]here cannot be a substantial change in the rights of the parties without a hearing on notice.”  Thus, the CSC’s ultimate action was void, as the Appellate Division had held.

The Court went on to observe that the matter was not even within the cognizance of the CSC, since Handlon’s purported position had never been created by ordinance.  His office thus never validly existed.  Arguably, therefore, the Court did not need to address the right of an agency to reconsider its decisions, or the necessity for notice and a hearing.  By ruling on those issues, though, the Court established principles that remain part of the foundation of New Jersey administrative law today.