Dems to Fight Gerrymandering on Local Turf

     CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (CN) – Democratic legislators from Nassau County persuaded a pair of federal judges to let a state court hear their challenge to a redistricting plan that would allegedly uproot more than 40 percent of the county’s voters before November elections and bolster Republicans’ legislative control.

     In an email, an attorney for the Democrats wrote, “We think state law is clear,” and Republicans must wait two more years before trying to change the maps.
     By that time, a new round of lawmakers will be voted into office, the attorney added.
     In April, Nassau Democrats complained that the Republicans redrew the map within a month of receiving the results of the 2010 Census to ensure that they will maintain or increase their 11-to-8 majority status in the next election.
     Democrats say that Republican Peter J. Schmitt, presiding officer of the Nassau County legislature, drew the lines to put four incumbent Democrats into two districts, and split up communities with like-minded interests.
     In early May, Nassau’s local minority leader Diane Yatauro led seven Democratic lawmakers in a state court lawsuit against the county’s legislature and board of elections to fight the plan, which was voted in later that month roughly on party lines.     
     The defendants subsequently succeeded in two motions to remand the cases to federal court, where it was split to address separate efforts to enjoin the local legislature and board of elections. U.S. district judges eventually agreed with the Democrats that the lower courts had the proper jurisdiction.     
     According to one memorandum, the new map carves out the 19 legislative districts so dramatically that voters are only connected by water.
     “In some instances, parts of a district are completely isolated from other parts of the district where a boat would be required to get from one end of the district to another since the roads connecting these parts of the district cut through other districts,” the memo states, later adding, “It is ‘mandering’ of the worst ilk.”
     Nassau County Attorney John Ciampoli, a former counsel for the New York State Senate Republican Campaign Committee, gave Schmitt, the Republican presiding officer, the legal opinions used in the redistricting plan. And he defended those opinions in a phone interview, insisting that the old maps unconstitutionally diluted minority votes.
     “The bottom line is it was my determination as the chief legal officer of the county that once the county knew that this problem existed, should the county do nothing about it?” Ciampoli asked. “There was the possibility that someone could sue the county and sue successfully for a violation of the principle known in the Constitution as ‘One Man, One Woman, One Vote.'”
     Nassau County Republicans say the new map creates a minority-majority district that corrects the problem.
     But local Democrats counter that, in doing so, the plan pulls minority voters out of a district where Republican legislator John J. Ciotti, a defendant in the suit, will defend his post.
     Ciampoli suggested that the Democrats’ accusations of gerrymandering were hypocritical, given the actions of the Democrat-led county Legislature in 2003.
     At the time, current plaintiff Judith Jacobs served as its presiding officer, and supported a map that pushed a Republican candidate out of the race by drawing his house out of his district, Ciampoli claimed.
     “His neighbor’s district was in the backyard. His district wasn’t,” Ciampoli said. “That’s a political gerrymander if ever I heard of one.”
     Predictably, the Democrats’ memo defends the 2003 redistricting as a model of due process.
     After the last Census was released in 2001, the Democrats say that the county Legislature they led sought public input for two years before adopting the new plan, rather than the six weeks Republicans took in 2011.
     “The actions of the Respondent Legislators are absurd and bear no resemblance to the redistricting process required by law or taken by the Legislature from 2001 to 2003, which was a deliberative, well thought out process which required considerable resources,” the memo states.
     Democrats say that the Republicans’ passage of the law flouted these processes as laid out in the Nassau County Charter. “We think state law is clear,” Stephen Schlesinger, attorney for the Democrats, said in an email.
     One provision of Nassau County’s charter mandates that the redistricting process begin “in the year two thousand and three and every ten years thereafter,” according to the memo Schlesinger authored.
     “They can’t gore our ox until 2013 – 10 years after the previous redistricting,” Schlesinger told Courthouse News. “We get one more crack at winning legislature back before they get to gerrymander.”

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