April 23, 2024
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Attorneys for Clifton School Board Members Move to Exclude ZOA From Appeal

The attorneys representing two commissioners on the Clifton Board of Education alleged to have made antisemitic statements have filed a motion to block the director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice from joining as co-counsel in an appeal of the state School Ethics Commission’s failure to hear the complaint against the commissioners.

The unusual and unexpected move was filed by Stephen R. Fogarty and Rodney T. Hara, the Fair Lawn attorneys representing Ferris Awaad and Fahim K. Abedrabbo, the Palestinian-American board members who, at a May meeting, accused Israel of ethnic cleansing and apartheid, and compared its treatment of Palestinians to the killing of George Floyd.

“These motions are routine, pretty routinely granted and almost never opposed,” said Jeffrey Schreiber, a partner in the East Brunswick office of the law firm of Meister Seelig & Fein, who is handling pro bono the appeal of the ethics commission’s decision. The complaint had been filed by Elisabeth Schwartz, a former member of the Englewood Board of Education.

Schreiber had filed the pro hac vice request, a special one-time admission to practice in New Jersey, for the ZOA’s Susan Tuchman, who is not a member of the New Jersey Bar, to join as co-counsel.

“This happens all the time,” said Schreiber. “Generally speaking, most courts allow it as a matter of course. It is a courtesy lawyers extend to other lawyers.” He said even in cases where there is opposition to the request, the courts rarely side with that opposition unless there is an egregious reason such as a fairly serious disciplinary issue with the additional counsel.

“You have to show good cause,” explained Schreiber, adding that in a pre hac vice filing attorneys have to vouch for their co-counsel’s professionalism. In this case, he would be “on the hook” for her adherence to the New Jersey Rules of Professional Conduct. Tuchman also said she was “very surprised” at the motion and added: “I’ve been practicing law a number of years and in my experience the opposing side either assents to the motion or does not oppose the motion.”

In their response to Schreiber’s request, Fogarty and Hara wrote in the motion obtained by The Jewish Link: “[It] is deficient on its face because it does not provide any basis for the required finding…that good cause exists.”

The response also said neither Tuchman nor Schreiber made any mention of a prior attorney-client relationship between them.

Additionally, it stated Schreiber’s request failed to demonstrate there is a lack of local counsel with expertise in New Jersey school law or the New Jersey School Ethics Act. The lawyers wrote the matter involved New Jersey law, while Tuchman is admitted to the bar in New York and Massachusetts.

“This is not a complex field of law in which Ms. Tuchman is a specialist,” read the response. “Mr. Schreiber does not state that this is a complex field of law. Ms. Tuchman, in paragraph 6 of her certification, states that she has ‘… expertise and experience with addressing critical issues in this case.’ Ms. Tuchman also does not state that this matter involves a complex field of law.”

The ZOA became involved in the case following the school ethics commission’s Jan. 25 decision to decline to hear the case.

The commission, part of the state department of education, had received lengthy certifications and legal briefs submitted by Awaad and Abedrabbo and their attorneys as well as the response to those filings by the complainant Schwartz.

In those documents the two sides clashed repeatedly over interpretations of state law and board policy.

Members of the Jewish community had dubbed the commissioners’ statements as “dangerous” and “untruthful” and many believe they crossed the line into antisemitism.

Schwartz also said Awaad’s closing statement at the board meeting, “Free Palestine. Free my people,” which is linked to the Boycott Divestment Sanctions campaign against Israel, is “intensely antisemitic and anti-Israel.”

No date has been set for the Appellate Court to rule on Tuchman’s admission.

By Debra Rubin

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