May an individual whose rights have been affected by a municipal ordinance seek a declaratory judgment? The Supreme Court of New Jersey has construed the Declaratory Judgments Act in a way that allows such individuals to seek declaratory action. Bell v. Stafford Tp., 110 N.J. 384, 390 (1988). N.J.S.A. 2A: 16-53.
In that case, the Township of Stafford, N.J. (“Stafford”) enacted an ordinance that declared that “[b]illboards, signboards, and off-premises advertising signs and devices are prohibited within any zoning district of the Township.” Stafford Ordinance No. 84-35. The plaintiff, Wesley Bell (“Bell”), owned three billboards affected by the ordinance. The trial court found the ordinance to be constitutional, but the Appellate Division reversed. Stafford appealed.
In part of his original complaint, Bell sought a declaratory judgment that the ordinance was unconstitutional on its face. In response, Stafford contended that the Appellate Division erred and should have refrained from making any determination of unconstitutionality.
The Appellate Court found that Stafford’s response invoked the doctrine of “strict necessity”, which holds that courts will adjudicate the constitutionality of legislation only if a constitutional determination is absolutely necessary to resolve a controversy between the parties. Rescue Army v. Municipal Court of Los Angeles, 331 U.S. 549 (1947). This was also applied in New Jersey in Donadio v. Cummingham¸ where it was held that “a court should not reach and determine a constitutional issue unless absolutely imperative in the disposition of litigation.” Donadio v. Cummingham¸ 58 N.J. 309, 325-26 (1971).
The Court also found that Bell had standing to press his constitutional challenge under the Declaratory Judgments Act. The Act “expressly confers standing on a person whose legal rights have been affected by a municipal ordinance.” Bell at 390. The Court held that the Act is not to be used to secure court decisions that are merely advisory. Rather, the Act affords “expeditious relief from uncertainty with respect to rights when claims are in genuine conflict.” Id. at 391. The Court concluded that the issue of the constitutionality of the ordinance was properly presented, since Bell had standing to raise the constitutional issue in a context that warranted a decision so as to fairly resolve the legal controversy caused by the application of Stafford’s ordinance. It subsequently affirmed the Appellate Division’s ruling.
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