Lee O’Toole’s election law legacy

The election of Lee Pfister O’Toole, who passed away this morning, as the Burlington County Democratic Chair in 1996 sparked a groundbreaking lawsuit that ended a longtime practice of requiring that the Vice Chair of a county party organziation be of the opposite sex as the Chair. In the race for Democratic Chair, O’Toole defeated Francis Hartman, while Alice Furia was elected Vice Chair (over Gary Haman). Hartman filed a suit claiming that the statute required the Chair and Vice Chair to be of different gender. The court ruled that the leadership of the party could be two men or two women and that the statute was unconstitutional. Superior Court Judge Harold Wells said that “as a result of the statute, the practice of requiring the leadership of the various county political party committees to be filled by persons of opposite genders has become thoroughly imbedded in the daily warp and woof of the political process in New Jersey. Indeed, one can easily speculate that but for a provision such as this, the place of women in the political process would not be as well established as it is now. For these reasons alone, as well as the respect due the vintage enactment under scrutiny here, it should not be lightly set aside. In addition, one is called upon to look at the court’s August decision as a glass half full: i.e., as opening up 100% of the positions in top party leadership to both genders, rather than as abolishing women’s guarantee to at least 50% of those positions.” The Judge ruled that the state “simply does not now have, if it ever did, such a compelling interest in the internal affairs of the County Committees of the political parties as to warrant legislating the gender of candidates for leadership positions of those parties.”

Lee O’Toole’s election law legacy