A special U.S. Senate election to replace the late Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg can be held in October, as it was scheduled by Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a New Jersey court ruled Thursday.
The ruling could be appealed, and while it keeps an election on course it does not seem likely to chill criticism of the popular governor for how he chose to replace Lautenberg, the last World War II veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate and its oldest member, who died last week at age 89.
The election is to decide who completes Lautenberg's term. Four Democrats and two Republicans have filed petitions to run in the Senate race, with three early polls showing Democratic Newark Mayor Cory Booker as the front-runner.
Christie scheduled the election for Oct. 16, 20 days before the general elections. A group of Democrats, backed by government watchdog groups and a coalition of minority political organizations, sued, saying it should be held Nov. 5, the day voters are going to the polls anyway.
Christie's critics have complained that holding the election in October will cost taxpayers unnecessarily. Officials say each election costs the state about $12 million to run.
Judge Jane Grall wrote Thursday that objections to the costs of the election are policy matters that aren't questions for the court.
"The question for us is whether the date selected is in violation of the law or Constitution, and we conclude that it is not," she wrote.
The court ruled less than a week after the objection was filed and without taking oral arguments.
Somerset County Democratic Party chairwoman Peg Schaffer, a lawyer for a group of Democrats that sued, said she would speak with other groups involved in the litigation to decide whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court. She said a decision could come Friday.
She noted that a key part of the legal interpretation came down to some language in a state law saying that the governor could call a special election for a date other than an already scheduled election day. She argued that a comma meant that that provision was only in certain cases; the state said it was in any case.
"It's a very expensive comma," Schaffer said. "I can't say they're wrong. I can say I disagree with them."
Complicated politics surround the dispute.
Democrats said Christie did not want his re-election vote and Legislative elections he's hoping his party wins on the same ballot as Booker, who, like Christie, is a nationally known figure. One of their fears is that voters will not turn out for one election in October and another in November.
"Regardless of the outcome of the court's decision, holding an election on a Wednesday in October is a cynical decision by Governor Christie that will disenfranchise voters," said state Sen. Barbara Buono, the Democratic candidate for governor.
Some conservative Republicans say Christie should have appointed someone to serve the rest of Lautenberg's term, giving Republicans a better chance to hang on to the seat after the term expires in January 2015. The last time New Jersey elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate was in 1972.
Instead, Christie appointed former state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa to the Senate, but only until a replacement can be elected. Chiesa, a Republican and confidant of Christie, is not seeking the seat beyond the short stay.
Christie has said he wants voters to be able to decide who represents them and for that democratic say to happen as soon as possible.
The popular governor taped a humorous bit defending his position for NBC's "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" on Wednesday. The show was bumped by a triple-overtime NHL playoffs game, but the video, in which Christie slow-jams the news, was made public Thursday.
Christie and lawyers for the state government argue that it was within Christie's legal right to schedule the election for October.
The lawyers also say the election process, featuring Aug. 13 primaries, is not too fast because the four Democrats and two Republicans were able to file petitions to run by Monday's deadline. Besides Booker, U.S. Reps. Rush Holt and Frank Pallone and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver are in the Democratic primary. Former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan and Piscataway doctor Alieta Eck are in the Republican election.
The three-judge panel also looked into a concern that there would not be enough time to prepare voting machines for a second election so soon after the October vote but yielded to the Christie administration's judgment on that issue.