Yael Bromberg, Brett Pugach, and Flavio Komuves posing in their offices with, on the left, an office block-style ballot that will be used in many primaries in June and, on the right, a county-line ballot that federal judges say may be unconstitutional. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

When both sides in the legal fight over New Jersey’s county-line ballots met in a federal courtroom in Newark for a hearing in March, it was clear which side had the most firepower.

On the defense side were the attorneys for the county clerks and Camden County’s Democratic Party — so many lawyers that, at one point, the judge seated some of them in the jury box. The clerks had representatives in the audience, too, and there were other attorneys off-site, filing briefs in the case as the hearing progressed.

Representing the plaintiffs were Yael Bromberg, Flavio Komuves, and Brett Pugach.

“You have 100 attorneys on the other side,” Bromberg told me. “And you have the three of us.”

Turns out, the clerks were outmatched. Not only did Bromberg, Komuves, and Pugach score a big victory at the district court level by getting New Jersey’s county-line ballots thrown out for June’s Democratic primaries, they won again 20 days later when a panel of federal appeals court judges sided with them, too.

And it wasn’t just the clerks and their high-powered lawyers fighting Bromberg, Komuves, and Pugach. The state’s political bosses were working behind the scenes to keep the county line alive, too.

So this isn’t just a David versus Goliath story. To paraphrase Albert Finney in “Erin Brockovich,” this is a story about David versus Goliath’s “whole f***ing family.”

“This team is just incredible,” Komuves said.

I visited the trio of lawyers recently in their Somerset office, where they spent many, many hours crafting the legal arguments that have left the county line on life support, to chat about how they came to be bona fide heroes in New Jersey’s progressive community.

Jersey roots

The three got their legal educations here in the Garden State. Komuves went to Seton Hall Law, and Bromberg and Pugach were classmates at Rutgers Law.

Komuves worked for the government in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was deputy public advocate under Gov. Jon Corzine, and has been senior counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

Bromberg worked at Common Cause and taught and supervised litigation in Georgetown University Law Center’s Civil Rights Clinic and Voting Rights Institute. She was part of the legal team that sued conservative group Project Veritas on behalf of Democratic consulting firm Democracy Partners over claims the group had violated wiretapping laws and used fraud to misrepresent itself to produce a heavily edited video trashing the consulting firm during the 2016 presidential campaign. A jury awarded Democracy Partners $120,000.

Pugach has represented various progressive candidates and served as general counsel for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in New Jersey in 2016. He also authored a 2020 paper for the Rutgers University Law Review called “The County Line: The Law and Politics of Ballot Positioning in New Jersey” that offered a preview of their fight with New Jersey’s party bosses, who, as Pugach wrote, “exercise unchecked power to endorse candidates up and down the primary ballot in New Jersey.”

Before 2020, Pugach told me, “you weren’t allowed to talk about this.”

“Anyone that had any aspirations for a political future, it was taboo. You literally couldn’t mention anything about this issue,” he said. “We created a space where, hey, it’s OK to talk about this issue and there’s going to be a grassroots movement behind people who are willing to challenge the system as it exists.”

As Komuves put it: “Nobody likes bossism, right? But there was this sort of, eh, what are you going to do about it?”

‘The exact right people at the right time’

Bromberg said Pugach’s paper provided much of the framework for their two legal challenges to the county line.

The first came when the three represented then-congressional candidate Christine Conforti in a 2020 lawsuit targeting the line that was still winding its slow way through the federal courts when they filed a similar suit in February 2024, this time with Rep. Andy Kim as one of the plaintiffs. Both were heard by U.S. District Judge Zahid Quraishi, who in late March issued the preliminary injunction that prevents clerks from using the county line in Democratic primaries. Quraishi found the plaintiffs would likely succeed in establishing that the county line improperly influences election outcomes.

How’d they do it? Well, they had experts on their side — like Josh Pasek, a political science professor at the University of Michigan who studied the effects of the county line and determined it alters election results and renders otherwise unviable candidates viable — that the clerks’ attorneys had a hard time rebutting. And once a federal appeals court refused to block Quraishi’s order pending an appeal, the clerks gave up and produced ballots without the county line, robbing them of what was one of their chief complaints, that Kim’s lawsuit came too late for them to change how they design ballots.

“Lo and behold, they all figured out how to do it,” Pugach said.

They also had Kim, who helped offer them a current, high-profile example of a candidate harmed by the county line. Kim in a statement said Bromberg, Komuves, and Pugach were “the exact right people at the right time to take on this challenge.”

“Each of their individual strengths, intellect, and experience brought something meaningful to the table. While their collective passion for protecting and strengthening our democracy has helped empower New Jersey voters and make us stronger and fairer,” he said.

The lawsuit isn’t dead. But Bromberg said she’s confident the county line will be kaput once the case is resolved because the public and the courts are now aware of its manifest unfairness.

“Now that they’re so knowledgeable about the issue, how can they meaningfully have public confidence in our elections unless we have fair and equal and uncorrupted office-block ballot designs?” Bromberg said.

Republished courtesy of New Jersey Monitor, which is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence T. McDonald for questions: [email protected]. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.

New Jersey Monitor Editor Terrence T. McDonald is a native New Jerseyan who has worked for newspapers in the Garden State for more than 15 years. He has covered everything from Trenton politics to the...