By Joshua Burd
A township that alleges that a former judge had conflicts of interest during its recent affordable housing litigation is hoping to take its case to the state Supreme Court.
On Thursday, attorneys for South Brunswick filed an application to the high court asking it to review an order by a lower court that ruled against the township. The municipality is seeking to void a series of decisions on its affordable housing obligations by the now-retired Superior Court judge, Douglas K. Wolfson, raising questions about his ties to a prominent developer.
Attorney Jeffrey Surenian highlighted what he says is a “close personal, familial and business relationship” between Wolfson, who presided in Middlesex County from 2009 to 2016, and Edgewood Properties. Surenian’s motion says Wolfson and his wife took a series of vacations that were paid for by Piscataway-based Edgewood or its affiliates, including seven while he heard South Brunswick’s affordable housing case and other cases that impacted the state’s long-contested exclusionary zoning policies.
The motion argues that Wolfson’s decisions benefited Edgewood and other developers involved in building affordable housing. Surenian also noted that a law firm operated by the wife of Edgewood CEO Jack Morris hired Wolfson’s son in 2013.
The attorney has said that, while Wolfson had no specific conflict of interest, his relationship with Morris created an appearance of impropriety. Wolfson, who retired at the end of last year, became a partner and general counsel with Edgewood.
The appeal to the state Supreme Court comes after a judge in Mercer County rejected pleas to void Wolfson’s affordable housing rulings concerning South Brunswick. Among them is an opinion that said the township had an obligation to provide 1,553 low and moderately priced units, while the municipality argues its requirement should be 927 units.
Surenian and South Brunswick then took the matter to a state appeals court, but those judges in late September declined to hear the case.
“In light of these facts, South Brunswick asserts the obvious: former Judge Wolfson hardly conducted himself in a manner where his impartiality was beyond reasonable question,” Surenian wrote. “Therefore, in accordance with Supreme Court precedent, the Township asserts that to restore the public’s trust in the integrity of the judiciary, the Court should vacate Wolfson’s rulings and assign an untainted judge to make determinations that will forever impact not only South Brunswick, but also municipalities across the state.”
In April, Wolfson told Observer New Jersey on Friday that he could not comment on specific cases he heard but said “it is a matter of public record … that I disclosed to the court-appointed special masters and all counsel my relationship with Mr. Morris, and in fact recused myself from several cases in which he or any of his companies were adverse to either to the town or to any of the other potentially competing builder/intervenors who sought to gain a favorable rezoning through the litigation process.”
It is the latest twist in the state’s long, tortured history of affordable housing policy, which includes decades of litigation. The state judiciary has overseen such decisions for the past two years since it stripped the Council on Affordable Housing of its policy oversight, leading to both settlements and litigation between municipalities who say the obligations would overwhelm their infrastructure and a coalition of developers and housing advocates.
On Thursday, a spokesman for the Fair Share Housing Center said South Brunswick’s appeal was another stall tactic.
“Multiple courts across the state have rejected the arguments South Brunswick is raising and we are confident that the courts will continue to find they have no merit,” said the spokesman, Anthony Campisi. “The fact is that South Brunswick can no longer delay or ignore its constitutional obligations. Judge Wolfson’s rulings have been repeatedly cited by other courts — including the Supreme Court — and we expect them to continue to be upheld as good law.”