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Attempt to recall senator moves to N.J. high court

The move to recall U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, driven by tea party activists and conservatives angry over bank bailouts and health-care costs, started at a kitchen table in the hills of Sussex County.

The move to recall U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, driven by tea party activists and conservatives angry over bank bailouts and health-care costs, started at a kitchen table in the hills of Sussex County.

Long active in conservative issues, little-known county tea party chairwoman RoseAnn Salanitri wrote to Menendez last year protesting President Obama's health-care legislation.

She says Menendez didn't respond, describing the slight as "probably the trigger" for the recall movement, which will play out before the state Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Menendez's office, however, said it received her letter last July and responded to it on Aug. 4, 2009.

Still, Salanitri says, "To me, that was not acceptable. They're supposed to be our servants; they serve at our invitation." As a result, she said, "I got more involved with the tea party and patriots expressing displeasure with our country."

Rather than stew, Salanitri, a former legal secretary and paralegal and now a self-proclaimed housewife, started doing some research from her Sandyston kitchen. She learned New Jersey's recall law, passed in the mid-1990s, was among the strongest in the country.

"It was like a bolt of lightning from the sky," she said. "It was a pretty incredible revelation. It caught on like wildfire. It's really energized people."

She worked through a network of tea party activists, who eventually joined her cause. She is a veteran of conservative causes. She is a cofounder of Creation Science Alive, which rejects Darwin's theory of evolution. She also edits an annual magazine for the New Jersey Family Policy Council, which opposes gay marriage and abortion.

Last week, the Conservative Legal Defense and Education Fund, Gun Owners Foundation, U.S. Border Control Foundation, American Coalition for Competitive Trade, and other conservative groups filed amicus briefs in the case supporting the recall. Also joining the fight is the American Civil Rights Union, which gave legal assistance to the successful argument before the U.S. Supreme Court to permit unlimited corporate spending in federal elections.

Andrew Schlafly, founder of Conservapedia, a conservative Web encyclopedia, is on Salanitri's legal team and will help argue the case before the state Supreme Court. He grew up in the conservative movement; his mother is Phyllis Schlafly, who heads the conservative Eagle Forum and who was an early opponent of feminists in the 1970s.

Salanitri, 60, filed to recall Menendez in September.

Former Secretary of State Nina Wells rejected the petition in the waning days of Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine's administration, and Salanitri sued to have the decision overturned. In March, the Appellate Court left it to a higher court to decide the most significant legal issue raised by Salanitri.

While state law permits recall of federal office holders, the Constitution is silent on the matter. Salanitri and her supporters argue that means the Constitution permits it.

"Whatever powers are not vested in the Constitution are left to the state and the people," said Richard Luzzi, an attorney working for NJRecall, Salanitri's group, and also a congressional candidate in the 11th District in North Jersey.

Menendez argues it means recall is prohibited and notes the Constitution specifically sets six-year terms for U.S. senators. He adds that no member of Congress has been recalled.

Until recently, Menendez has downplayed the recall movement. But after the state Appellate Court ruled in March and state Attorney General Paula Dow declined to appeal the decision, Menendez pushed to have the legal issues resolved by the state Supreme Court.

"The tea party is on the wrong side of the U.S. Constitution in court and on the wrong side of mainstream New Jersey values in the court of public opinion," Menendez spokesman Afshin Mohamadi said in a statement. "They believe a vote for health-insurance reform is reason to recall a leader who is standing up to Big Oil, Big Banks, and Big Insurance."

The New Jersey Democratic State Committee on Monday announced a Web page slamming the recall movement and questioning its motives.

Menendez is spending much of his time as head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, holding onto his party's 60-seat majority in the Senate in what many analysts believe is a Republican year.

Eventually, this issue could make it through the federal court system and up to the U.S. Supreme Court, Luzzi said.

"It's a case with national implications," he said.

Other U.S. senators, including Mary Landrieu (D., La.), and Ben Nelson (D., Neb.), are facing nascent recall movements in their states.

While the tea party has found its focus in New Jersey's Menendez-recall movement, one sympathizer says it's distracting itself.

Former Republican State Sen. Richard LaRossa, an adviser to tea party groups around the state, said, "Look at the energy and expense they're using on Menendez when the one thing that would be better than going after Menendez would be getting behind these candidates."

He said a handful of tea party-endorsed candidates in congressional races around the state, including the Third District in Burlington and Ocean Counties, would be a better sign of the movement's strength than a protracted recall battle.

If the recall advocates win the Menendez case, they still must collect 1.3 million signatures to get on the ballot.

Salanitri says she knows what's ahead and is taking one step at a time, undaunted.

"The potential of this movement is so large and monumental," she said. "It is a potential game-changer."