By Scott Brinton
Democrats welcomed news last Thursday that a State Supreme Court justice had issued a temporary restraining order barring the Republican-controlled Nassau County Legislature from moving ahead with a plan to redraw the Legislature’s lines.
Dozens of residents turned out at a May 9 public hearing to protest the plan, saying it represented a power grab by the GOP. County Attorney John Ciampoli drew up the plan shortly after results of the U.S. census were released in April. The Legislature was scheduled to vote on it on May 16, but Judge Steven Jaeger’s decision granting the restraining order effectively barred the Legislature from deciding the matter on Monday, when a vote on the proposal was supposed to take place. The Legislature wound up tabling the vote.
The Legislature’s Democratic minority filed suit on May 10 to enjoin the Republican redistricting plan. Jaeger is expected to issue a final decision in the case on May 26. In the meantime, Legislator David Denenberg, a Democrat from Merrick, said, “As I expected, the courts rejected the county attorney’s and the Republican majority’s unique and absurd interpretation of the county charter … Not only is this ill-fated plan unfair and illegal, but it would have cost taxpayers millions of dollars. To me, wasting taxpayers’ money is never acceptable.”
“This is a victory for the democratic process in Nassau County,” said Jay Jacobs, the New York state and Nassau County Democratic Committee chairman. “The Republicans in the County Legislature want to ignore the law and redraw district lines two years ahead of the deadline prescribed by our county charter. We know this is unethical, illegal and wrong, and we’re glad that the judge wants to consider this case carefully.”
The Legislature’s majority leader, Peter Schmitt, a Republican from Massapequa, and Ciampoli had argued at the May 9 hearing that the county was constitutionally required to pass a temporary redistricting plan to address population deviations throughout the county. According to the charter, the maximum number of residents within a district is set at 70,000. In a number of instances, however, district populations have swelled, which Schmitt and Ciampoli said they believe violates the U.S. Constitution’s one-person, one-vote rule. Therefore, they said, the Legislature must act now. They said the question of redistricting would be taken up again by a bipartisan commission in March of 2012, and the Legislature would vote on a final plan in 2013.
Democrats, though, argued that the Legislature is simply required “to describe” the county’s 19 districts at this point. Population deviations, they said, must be addressed only by a bipartisan redistricting commission through a lengthy series of public hearings, according to the county charter. They said the Republican majority is attempting to push through an untenable plan in order to secure power in the 2011 election.
Under the Republican plan, the 19th District, represented by Denenberg, would be merged with the 5th District, which is represented by Democrat Joseph Scannell of Baldwin. The 19th District would be moved to the southwestern corner of Nassau, and Denenberg and Scannell would have to compete in a primary to determine who would represent the district. In effect, Democrats would lose a seat in the Legislature.
What will happen next is unclear. Democrats appear convinced that the Supreme Court ruling will halt the Republican plan from taking effect this year.
Meanwhile, Republicans might appeal the decision. Ciampoli said he could find only one instance in history when a legislative body was enjoined from voting on a matter –– in 1861, when President Abraham Lincoln had Maryland lawmakers arrested to prevent them from voting to secede from the Union. Ciampoli also said that Jaeger had given no reason why he issued a temporary restraining order on the vote.
Stephen Schlesinger, the attorney for the Democrats, said Jaeger’s decision would not bar the Legislature from voting. Rather, it would prevent the Republican plan from taking effect until the injunction was lifted.
Comments about this story? SBrinton@liherald.com or (516) 569-4000 ext. 203.