Santiago hearing concludes, Trenton awaits decision

Court action on the Police Director Joseph Santiago residency case took place this morning, and parties on all sides cut right to the chase, throwing out extraneous arguments and points and settling on a single argument.

The central argument of the legal battle – which should decide whether Mayor Douglas H. Palmer has the unilateral ability to grant waivers to the residency law for any employee he deems appropriate – is about how amendments made to Trenton’s law in the late 1980s jibe with state law governing residency requirements.

Mercer County Superior Judge Linda Feinberg said during court proceedings today that she will write a legal opinion on that argument and release it in about 10 days, effectively settling the fate of Mr. Santiago and his residency case.

The court action began with an explanation of the case by the judge, as she understood it, to the six attorneys directly involved in the case along with a group of residents, reporters, and other interested parties.

The key statement made by Judge Feinberg during the entire hour or so of court action was uttered early on, when the judge said she was going to explain to the courtroom her interpretation of the “current” ordinance, seemingly implying that no matter which way she ruled, the current Trenton residency law would change.

Arguments about whether Mr. Santiago is a police officer, and whether the city should decide the case, were thrown out immediately.

“He is not a police officer,” Judge Feinberg said.

It was apparently the consensus of both sides in court that Trenton’s law does not, at the very least, match state law language word for word, but that was the point where any agreement on the two sides stopped. Whether that is significant, requires a change in the law, or requires the law to be thrown out, is where the crux of the entire case lies.

Attorneys for Mayor Palmer and Mr. Santiago dually maintained that the current law’s waiver language is faulty to the point that the current law needs to be scrapped, and that the mayor acted in a proper way to grant Mr. Santiago’s exemption, under both the state residency language and the greater Faulkner Act.

They said Friday that those two points both save Mr. Santiago from dismissal or being forced to move to Trenton, and require the current law to be taken off the books altogether, in favor of a future law that reflects the language of the state residency statute.

Attorneys for a group of Trenton residents – including myself – and the Trenton City Council took a different stand on this central argument Friday.

Following the proceedings at least one of the two said he felt very confident about his case.

The stance of those seeking Mayor Palmer and Mr. Santiago’s adherence to the law was as follows: the state laws governing residency were enacted AFTER the city’s residency law, and had language saying that any prior residency requirement could remain as is, just as long as any amendments or changes following the passage of the state law were consistent with what the state legislature said.

It was their argument that the Trenton residency amendments – which introduced waiver language along with some other provisions – were at least consistent with the state law, and did not merit being thrown out, along with the rest of the ordinance.

Alternatively, they pointed out that even if the amendments made in the 1980s by Trenton City Council were not truly consistent with state law, it is usually the policy of courts to try and spare as much of any law or ordinance as possible when called to throw out its faulty portions.

The plaintiff’s lawyers took the position that even if the amendments made to the Trenton residency law in the 1980s were faulty, then they could by severed from the rest of the ordinance while the rest remained, without sparing Mr. Santiago from the provisions of the law casting non-residents out of their jobs.

While the show of legal knowledge and language utilized by Mayor Palmer and Mr. Santiago’s attorneys was certainly impressive, it was more a superficial show of word-twisting and making certain legal arguments, precedents, and strategies seem stronger than they actually were, when given the language of the law.

Also, Judge Feinberg initially said that while the law would have to be changed, she could either cast out the law completely – allowing 2,000 city employees the freedom to flee the city limits – or she could edit the ordinance to make it correctly reflect the state law, if she ended ruling that it did not.

The former would probably result in mass chaos, further decline in the city, and an overturning of a citizen-initiated law that has worked correctly for most of its existence, all for the salvation of a single politically-connected employee who couldn’t follow a simple rule.

The latter would end the current controversy and clarify an important legal question that has been daunting the city for several years, while allowing the city government to return to its normal business.

Let’s hope sanity and justice carries the day.

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