Posted on April 2, 2014 by John A. McKinney Jr
What happens when an administrative agency actually fails to comply with a court order mandating the adoption of regulations? New Jersey administrative agencies and bodies have an idea despite the state’s Supreme Court modification of a lower court’s order. As state environmental agencies and boards often face court orders mandating new or modified regulations, they should know what almost happened in New Jersey.
In New Jersey, the nation’s most densely populated state, there is a constant tug between development and preservation. Two New Jersey Supreme Court decisions and the state’s Fair Housing Act address housing. In effect, they require all 566 municipalities to provide for the development and existence of low and moderate-income housing so that each municipality meets its fair share of the region’s housing needs. The Act created the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) to establish housing fair share numbers for the municipalities and the regulatory means to meet them. COAH has been criticized routinely and has been the subject of several major decisions since its creation. The last such decision, In re Adoption of N.J.A.C. 5:96 & 5:97 by N.J. Council on Affordable Housing, was in September of 2013 when the Supreme Court ordered COAH to enact new rules within five months. With COAH under attack from the current administration and with several seats on its board empty, meeting the deadline seemed unlikely. COAH held no meetings within the five months and the deadline was not met.
As a result of missing the deadline, the Superior Court-Appellate Division, our intermediate court, issued a decision and order of March 7, 2014, that should be a lesson to all regulatory bodies. The Appellate Division took the extraordinary measure of requiring a COAH meeting five days after issuing the order to be attended by sufficient board members to constitute a quorum, at which meeting the board was to instruct its executive director to prepare compliant rules. The Appellate Division required that the new rules be presented to COAH two weeks later. On that date, COAH was to meet again with a quorum, conduct an official meeting and adopt the rules consistent with the state’s Administrative Procedures Act. Six weeks later, again with a quorum required, COAH was to meet to review all public comments, consider them and any amendments proposed by the executive director and adopt the rules.
As if the level of detail in directing COAH was not enough, here’s the part of the decision and order that caused a stir. If this aggressive schedule was not met in any way, the Appellate Division ordered that “each member of the COAH Board will be ordered to personally appear before this court … to show cause why he or she shall not be declared in contempt of this court’s authority subject to monetary sanctions, civil detention, and such other sanctions the court may deep suitable to induce compliance with this order.” If this order does not send a chill into the hearts of tardy regulators, nothing will.
Perhaps the chill was ameliorated by the subsequent order of the New Jersey Supreme Court of March 14, 2014, setting more lenient time frames for compliance. The Supreme Court’s order also dropped the language about appearing personally at a contempt hearing but another court might not if its order to issue regulations is not met. For state regulators in such a situation, their court of highest jurisdiction may not back away from the approach taken by the New Jersey Appellate Division, establishing a specific agency schedule and threatening severe personal consequences in the face of non-compliance with a court order.
There may be nothing particularly new about the judicial power to enforce its orders, including use of citation for contempt. In the context of reviewing administrative regulations and dealing with appointed or elected boards or agencies, exercise of this judicial power generally includes recognition of and sensitivity to the separation of powers and the “real world” circumstances in which agencies act. However, these recent New Jersey orders should put regulators on notice that reviewing courts will be less tolerant of failures to implement their decisions.