No Sufficient Findings Below, So No Appellate Ruling on Constitutional Challenge to Advance Voter Registration Statute

Rutgers University Student Assembly v. Middlesex Cty. Bd. of Elections, 438 N.J. Super. 93 (App. Div. 2014).  Plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of N.J.S.A. 19:31-6.3b, which, as Judge Haas described it in this opinion today, “requires all eligible persons to register to vote no later than twenty-one days prior to an election.”  Plaintiffs argued that, among other things, the development of a computerized Statewide Voter Registration System makes advance registration no longer necessary to protect the integrity of the election process, and that the advance registration requirement now violates the constitutional burden right to vote.  According to plaintiffs, only a same-day registration process would be constitutional.

Plaintiffs moved for summary judgment, and defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, a motion that the Chancery Division treated as a motion for summary judgment as well.  The parties raised interesting arguments about the proper test to be used in evaluating the issues, with plaintiffs contending for strict scrutiny since voting is a fundamental right while defendants asserted that a balancing test established by Burdick v. Takushi, 504 U.S. 428 (1992), should govern.  The Chancery Division agreed with defendants as to the applicable standard, and ultimately granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment and denied that of plaintiffs.  Plaintiffs then appealed, presenting these significant issues for decision by the Appellate Division.

Unfortunately, the panel found itself unable “to fulfill [its] appellate function” because the court below did not make sufficient findings.  Though there were “reams of evidence” before the Chancery Division, that court did not address any of it in reaching its conclusions under the Burdick balancing test.  That violated Rule 1:7-4(a), which requires trial level judges to state their findings and conclusions in sufficient detail to permit appellate review.  Accordingly, the panel reversed the grant of summary judgment to defendants and the denial of summary judgment to plaintiffs and remanded the case for further proceedings.

The issues of this case are of great public importance since they implicate voting rights.  Today’s opinion, which discussed the strict scrutiny vs. Burdick issue but did not, of course, resolve it, was just a teaser.  The case will likely go back on appeal after this remand, and the Appellate Division may not be the final stop for this matter.