Former Assemblyman Has No Right to Appeal to Appellate Division, But Wins His Appeal There Anyway

Vas v. Roberts, 418 N.J. Super. 509 (App. Div. 2011).  Former Assemblyman Joseph Vas was indicted while in office for crimes of public corruption.  In response to those indictments, then Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, Jr. suspended Vas’s Assembly salary and benefits.  Vas appealed that action to the Appellate Division under Rule 2:2-3(a)(2), which allows appeals directly to that court from actions of a state administrative agency or officer.

Most of Judge Parrillo’s opinion for the panel addressed the appealability of the Speaker’s action.  After a scholarly analysis, Judge Parrillo concluded that the Legislature is “excluded from any usual definition of state administrative agency,” and that the Speaker was not a state administrative officer within the meaning of Rule 2:2-3(a)(2).  Instead of going to the Appellate Division, Vas should have brought his appeal in the Law Division as an action in lieu of prerogative writ.

Despite that, “because the allocation to the Appellate Division is not jurisdictional in the strict subject-matter sense, [we] may, in the public interest, opt to address the merits of a dispute improvidently brought before [us].”  The panel found that the public interest here justified its review.  In deciding to reach the merits, the court rejected arguments of statute of limitations and failure to exhaustion of administrative remedies that Roberts asserted.

The panel found the merits to be fairly easy.  Article IV, section 4, paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution guarantees that legislators “shall receive annually, during the term for which they shall have been elected and while they hold their office, such compensation as shall, from time to time, be fixed by law.”  An implementing statute, N.J.S.A. 52:10A-1, confirmed that.  The Assembly had the power to set reasonable rules to regulate the conduct of its members and to “punish its members for disorderly behavior.”  N.J. Const. art. IV, §4, ¶3.  But no rule promulgated by the Assembly for that purpose authorized the Speaker to withhold salary or benefits unilaterally.  Accordingly, Judge Parrillo concluded that the Speaker’s action was “ultra vires and therefore unlawful.”