WASHINGTON – The New Jersey Supreme Court decided Tuesday to hear arguments on whether the Democrats could replace Sen. Robert Torricelli on the state's November ballot, a case that could decide the makeup of the U.S. Senate.
The hearing was set for Wednesday. Torricelli, once seen as invincible but now far behind GOP challenger Doug Forrester in the polls due to an ongoing corruption scandal, bowed out of his re-election bid Monday afternoon.
New Jersey Democratic State Committee counsel Angelo Genova filed a petition in state Superior Court Tuesday morning to block 21 county clerks from printing Torricelli's name on the Nov. 5 ballot and to allow the state committee to name his replacement.
Within the hour, the Superior Court deferred the case to the state Supreme Court.
According to court officials, state Republicans have yet to file a response to the Democratic motion.
New Jersey electoral law permits the replacement of a candidate on a statewide ticket up to 48 days before the election. Torricelli, whose campaign was torpedoed by mounting allegations of corruption, missed the deadline by 12 days.
"In 36 days, decency, fairness and the rule of the law will trump this desperate attempt to retain power," said Forrester, an unknown businessman who surged to take a double-digit lead in the polls. "The people of New Jersey have had enough of playing politics with the fundamental tenets of democracy."
Democratic officials contended that county clerks would have "ample opportunity" to substitute a new name for Torricelli's, and that voter confusion would result otherwise.
Rep. Bob Menendez, the leading candidate to replace Torricelli on the Democratic ticket, announced on Tuesday morning that he had declined the offer.
"My decision not to run for the U.S. Senate is based on my commitment to achieve a Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives," Menendez said in a statement, "and my desire to become the next Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus."
Menendez had been actively courted by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Senate Majority Whip Harry Reid, D-Nev., but was said to be happy with his stature as the No. 5 Democrat in the House and reluctant to give up his seat to mount a risky Senate run.
That reduces the short list to Rep. Frank Pallone, who is said to already have had discussions with Reid, Rep. Rob Andrews and former Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who retired in 2000 and has had a long-standing rift with Torricelli. Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., currently holds his seat.
Torricelli himself mentioned state Assembly majority leader Joseph Roberts as another possibility on NBC's Today show Tuesday morning.
Lautenberg said he would "seriously consider serving again if asked." Calls to Menendez, Pallone and Andrews were not immediately returned.
Former Sen. Bill Bradley, whose retirement in 1996 opened the seat for Torricelli to win, flatly refused Daschle's offer to run for the seat, Democratic sources said.
Another option for the Democrats could be for Torricelli to resign his Senate seat now, instead of staying in office until the next Congress is sworn in in January.
The Democrats posit that New Jersey law says that if a candidate resigns or dies more than 30 days before an election, the governor, currently James McGreevey, a fellow Democrat and close friend of Torricelli's, can appoint a new candidate.
If the death or resignation happens less than 30 days before the election, the party maintains, the race can be canceled and the governor can set a new date for a special election.
Republicans counter that New Jersey elections law prohibits a swap of candidate names within 51 days of the election -- and that Torricelli's departure is effectively a forfeit.
"The National Republican Senatorial Committee will participate in any challenge to the effort by the Democratic Party to replace Sen. Robert Torricelli on the general election ballot," said Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., chairman of the NRSC. "If there were to be exceptions to the law, it is highly unlikely that fear of losing an election would be one of them."
Torricelli's 30-year career in politics came to a dramatic end at a press conference in the state capitol of Trenton Monday afternoon.
"I have asked attorneys to file with the Supreme Court of the United States motions to have my name removed from the general election ballot for the United States Senate," Torricelli said on the verge of tears. "It is the most painful thing I have ever done in my life."
"I could not stand the pain if any failing on my part would do damage to the things and the people I have fought for all my life," Torricelli said. "I will not be responsible for the loss of the Democratic majority of the United States Senate."
Response was quick from Forrester, Torricelli's Republican opponent.
"No one has the right to rewrite the laws simply because he is losing in the latest public opinion polls. My fellow New Jerseyans, I say enough is enough," Forrester said.
On Monday, Torricelli notified Daschle, Reid, McGreevey and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray that he was planning to withdraw.
"Sen. Robert Torricelli has spent himself for a worthy cause and devoted his life to public service. He has been doing his 20-year tenure in the Congress as a strong and effective representative for the people of New Jersey," McGreevey said Monday.
In a written statement after the announcement, Daschle said, "I respect Senator Torricelli's decision to end his campaign for re-election. ... I know this was a very difficult decision for him and his voice will be missed."
The Torch, nicknamed for his fiery rhetoric, was "severely admonished" over the summer by the Senate ethics committee, which investigated allegations that he had accepted campaign gifts from a campaign contributor, businessman David Chang.
Chang is serving 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to making illegal campaign contributions. During his court case, he told investigators that he gave the senator Italian suits and an $8,100 Rolex watch, among other gifts, in return for Torricelli's intervention in business deals in North and South Korea.
A Newark Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll issued this past weekend had Torricelli down 14 points, 47-33. The poll was taken before papers used in Chang's court case were released by a judge Friday.
The documents, which Torricelli had hoped to keep sealed until his appeal after the November election, were released after five news agencies asked for them to be unsealed.
Among them were assertions by Chang that Torricelli would call him up whenever he needed spending money. Chang would comply with $2,000 installments of cash, he stated in the papers.
Torricelli denied on Monday that he was guilty of any charges.
"While I have not done the things that I have been accused of doing, I most certainly have made mistakes.," the senator said. "There are those who will conclude that those mistakes bring justice to this moment because there is a price to be paid.
"When did we become such an unforgiving people? How did we become a society where a person can build credibility their entire life to have it questioned by someone whose word is of no value at all?" Torricelli asked.
The senator said that he would continue to serve out his term, adding that he wants to register his voice in the debate over Iraq.
On Tuesday morning, Forrester said Torricelli's drop out of the race "means we can talk about the issues."
In an interview on WABC-TV in New York, Forrester said, "Whenever I tried to bring up another issue like the environment, it somehow always got back to being about" Torricelli.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and Major Garrett and the Associated Press contributed to this report.