ROCHESTER, N.Y. (CN) — When 16-term Congresswoman Louise Slaughter died in March, Governor Andrew Cuomo should have called a special election to fill the vacancy, Slaughter’s constituents say. He has not, so they sued him Tuesday in a federal class action.
Louise Slaughter died March 16 at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., where a memorial service was held for her Wednesday afternoon. Slaughter, 89, a Democrat, was the oldest sitting member of Congress.
Her vacant seat deprives citizens in New York’s 25th Congressional District of their constitutional and civil rights, lead plaintiff David Seubert says in the complaint filed by Andrew Preston, with Bee Ready Fishbein, Hatter & Donovan, of Mineola.
“When vacancies happen in the Representation from any State, the Executive Authority thereof shall issue Writs of Elections to fill such Vacancies,’” the complaint states, quoting the New York Constitution.
“The plain meaning of the language in Article I, Section II, Clause IV, including the use of the word ‘shall’ is mandatory,” the complaint continues. “It is designed to assure our citizens of representation in Congress.”
The seven named plaintiffs describe themselves as a “diverse” group of registered voters from different political parties.
Western New York’s Rochester and most of Monroe County are included in the 25th Congressional District. The midterm general elections this year will be on Nov. 6.
Thomas Ferrarese, a Monroe County Board of Elections commissioner, said in an interview Wednesday that the circumstances and timing make this vacancy unusual.
“If this wasn’t a congressional election year, it is my belief that the government should have called a special election immediately,” he said.
But because Congress takes part of the summer off, and then its members will be campaigning to keep their seats, his view is that the district should take this slowly.
He said Slaughter’s constituents have access to her staff and resources, though they do not have a voting member on the floor.
“I think getting the right representative is more important” than having a quick special election, Ferrarese said.
But the plaintiffs demand that Cuomo and the boards of elections explain why they have not called a special election for Slaughter’s seat. If they cannot show cause, the plaintiffs demand a special election be held concurrently the federal primaries on June 26.
Ferrarese said he has not been served with the lawsuit, but that holding a special election along with the federal election would present challenges for his staff.
“We’d have to have twice as much equipment and twice as many workers,” he said. “So trying to do a primary and a special election on the same day, we don’t have enough machines.”
He reiterated the time constraints.
“There needs to be a reasonable path in terms of replacing her,” he said. “I think we’re trying to make sure the voters have a choice, have an opportunity to pick who they want, and it’s done in a reasonable fashion.”
He said Slaughter, whom he knew for 45 years, would have wanted it that way.
“She would have wanted this done right,” Ferrarese said.
A similar case was filed in 2015 in New York’s Eastern District, Rossito-Canty et al v. Cuomo, when Congressman Michael Grimm resigned, after pleading guilty to felony tax fraud.
In that case, U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein directed Cuomo to set a date for a special election, or he would set one himself. The case was dismissed when Cuomo set the date. Grimm, a Republican, served eight months in prison, but said he will try to regain his seat in Congress this year.
There are five vacancies in the U.S. House today, according to the House clerk website. In addition to Slaughter’s, the others resulted from the resignations of Arizona’s Trent Franks, a Republican who allegedly asked staff members to carry his child as surrogates; Ohio’s Pat Tiberi, who resigned in January, one of a raft of Republicans who announced their departure from Congress this year; Michigan’s John Conyers, a 26-term Democrat who resigned after being accused of sexual harassment; and Texas’ Blake Farenthold, a Republican also accused of sexual harassment.
A phone call to Slaughter’s Rochester office was answered by a machine that said her staff is in Washington for her memorial service and will return messages on Friday.
Attorney Preston declined to comment, as did John Conklin, a spokesman for the New York Board of Elections.
Cuomo’s office did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday.