The Court continued: Importantly, the Wetterling Act neither required states accepting funds to impose registration requirements retroactively on individuals previously convicted of sex offenses, nor precluded states from imposing any new registration requirements on offenders convicted prior to the establishment of the registration system.'” In other words, the Legislature’s stated purpose for enacting subsection (g) – securing federal funding by complying with federal law – was fully served without retroactive application of the new statute.
In short, there is little to suggest the Legislature intended subsection (g) apply retroactively to those who were “convicted or released” prior to 2002. As a result, we need not determine whether retroactive application of subsection (g) would result in unconstitutional interference with ‘vested rights’ or a ‘manifest injustice.’ However, for the sake of completeness, we consider those issues.
Retroactive legislation that impairs or destroys a ‘vested right’ may violate the due process clauses of the federal or state constitutions, but due process does not “prohibit retroactive civil legislation unless the consequences are particularly harsh and oppressive.” A “‘vested right’ encompasses a fixed interest entitled to protection from state action.
The Court explained the “essence of [the manifest injustice] inquiry” is whether the affected party relied, to his or her prejudice, on the law that is now to be changed as a result of the retroactive application of the statute, and whether the consequences of this reliance are so deleterious and irrevocable . . . it would be unfair to apply the statute retroactively. It is an equitable doctrine that does not flow from constitutional requirements. The manifest injustice analysis requires ‘a weighing of the public interest in the retroactive application of the statute against the affected party’s reliance on previous law, and the consequences of that reliance.’ In the modern context, a key element in evaluating retroactive change is whether the Legislature has denied a claimant all remedies or has modified available remedies.
Appellants had no vested right to relief from their registration obligations. As originally enacted, Megan’s Law presumed they would be subject to lifetime registration; subsection (f) provided conditional relief contingent not only upon G.H.’s and G.A.’s own conduct, but also upon their ability to persuade a judge they no longer posed a threat to public safety. More importantly, “there can be no vested right in the continued existence of a statute which precludes its change or repeal.”
However, at the time of their guilty pleas, appellants could reasonably rely upon the possibility of relief from lifetime registration. The retroactive application of subsection (g) does not modify a remedy but eliminates an incentive integral to Megan’s Law remedial purpose by denying certain registrants any relief from the obligations inherent in lifetime registration, along with the attendant opprobrium and potential criminal liability. Weighing that against the public’s interest in the safety of the community, which was adequately served by subsection (f) prior to the passage of subsection (g), we conclude retroactive application of subsection (g) to G.H. and G.A. would be manifestly unjust.
Courts normally refuse to address constitutional issues unless they are required to do so. Here, the Court abandoned the usual course and conducted a constitutional analysis. The most likely reason is that the panel was anticipating that the State would appeal to the New Jersey Supreme Court and wanted to avoid a potential remand to make a more complete record.