Will task force heed court prison-count ruling?
by Peter Wagner, December 15, 2011
Although a lawsuit by Republican Senators seeking to use prison populations to shore up their under-populated districts was thrown out two weeks ago, their efforts to sabotage the law are still with us.
In 2010, Governor Patterson signed a landmark civil rights law requiring that incarcerated people be counted as residents of their home addresses for state and local redistricting purposes. Although most upstate counties already reject the Census Bureau’s prison counts for their own county redistricting, upstate Senators cried foul. And when they retook the majority in the state Senate, the new leadership promptly called for a time-out on implementing the law.
Nine upstate Senators with large prisons filed suit to permanently stop the law. Not among the plaintiffs, however, was Senator Nozzolio, who chairs the Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections committee and who has thousands of prison cells in his district. Instead, in his role as co-chair of the legislature’s redistricting taskforce, he was a defendant and used that position to tell the court that the task force would not defend the lawsuit.
The taskforce even announced that implementation of the law was on hold pending the outcome of the lawsuit. Civil rights groups, good government groups and editorial boards rightly objected to legislators unilaterally pledging to ignore a law before being told to do so by a judge. Under such pressure, the taskforce began to talk about following the law, but the tangible progress hasn’t been forthcoming.
Figuring out where incarcerated people reside and adjusting the Census Bureau data takes time, but it is not difficult. Maryland has a similar law and they implemented their version in a few months. The prisons provided the data a year ago, and all the taskforce had to do was process it. Eventually, the Assembly completed the process on its own back in September, and asked the Senate to approve their work. Instead, Senator Nozzolio raised challenges to the Assembly’s choice of software. And so the just-for-show bickering continued until the Judge threw out the Senate’s legal case and the charade started to collapse.
Given that they claim they intended to follow the law, the lawsuit’s dismissal shouldn’t have had an impact on the taskforce’s scheduled meeting last week to discuss implementation of the law. Instead, running out of legal arguments, they canceled the meeting.
My best guess is that the Senate’s strategy is to run out the clock. At some point the Senate intends to sheepishly look up and try to tell a federal judge overseeing New York’s compliance with the Voting Rights Act, “Gee, we really wanted to implement this civil rights law, but we found it harder than expected and we just ran out of time.”
If that’s their strategy, it could end sooner than they think. In November, a group of citizens asked a federal judge to take over redistricting. They pointed to several reasons why they do not expect the legislature to complete redistricting in time for the primary elections, and the law ending prison-based gerrymandering was a key part of their argument.
I don’t know how the federal judge will rule, but it would be rational for New Yorkers to conclude that the redistricting taskforce is either unable or unwilling to comply with the law. Clearly, if the redistricting taskforce doesn’t get to work, somebody is going to put them out of a job real soon.