“Neal Katyal Was Their Resistance Hero. Until They Found Out About New Jersey.”


In 49 of the 50 states, Neal Katyal is known as a stalwart defender of democracy. And then there’s New Jersey.

In the Garden State, Katyal — the Beltway-famous legal combatant against Trump-era assaults on democratic norms — has thrown himself into a very different legal battle: He’s working to restore a voting rule that enables machine-politics bosses to stack the ballot against anyone they don’t favor. A federal judge last month declared the system unconstitutional for the upcoming primary. Now Katyal’s admirers say they’re enraged by their erstwhile ally’s efforts to snatch away their victory.

“We are all amazed and disappointed and all the related words,” said Yael Niv of the Good Government Coalition of New Jersey. “He’s on the wrong side of history.”…

Democracy advocates have long derided the rule as something out of a banana republic, “an unconstitutional governmental thumb on the scale,” in the words of New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim, the Democratic Senate candidate who filed suit against the “fundamentally unjust and undemocratic” system in February.

When Kim’s lawsuit prevailed on March 29, it represented a political earthquake in the state — and set off impromptu celebrations among activists who’d fought the system for years and couldn’t quite believe they’d won.

But instead of joining the celebrations, Katyal joined the other side, filing an amicus brief last Saturday on behalf of the Middlesex County Democratic Organization, one of the state’s venerable local machines.

Katyal declined comment, saying he was busy preparing for arguments in a gun-control case in San Francisco this week. But his filing does not strike the high notes that might be familiar to those who read his anti-Trump book or watched his successful Supreme Court evisceration of the “independent state legislature” doctrine that could have allowed state legislatures to overturn election results.

Nonetheless, the brief makes a coherent argument for the old status quo: The line system, Katyal writes, “makes voting more efficient by allowing primary voters to easily identify and quickly vote for all candidates belonging to a single political organization or affiliating with a single slogan.” According to the brief, it’s about protecting “low-information” voters: “Only political junkies learn enough about each primary candidate to make an informed choice about who should be their party’s nominee for Surrogate, township council, or County Clerk.”

It’s an argument that draws scoffs from attorneys who fought to kill off the system….

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