(CN) – New York Gov. David Paterson had the authority to appoint a lieutenant governor to fill the vacancy created by former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s resignation, the state’s top court ruled Tuesday on a 4-3 vote.
The ruling reversed a lower court’s decision earlier this month that Paterson had overstepped his authority when he appointed Richard Ravitch to succeed him as lieutenant governor.
Paterson assumed the office of governor following Eliot Spitzer’s resignation in the wake of a prostitution scandal.
Paterson appointed Ravitch, a former chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, to the state’s second-highest post in July 2009.
Republican Senators Dean Skelos and Pedro Espada Jr. said the appointment wasn’t constitutional, as it placed the unelected Ravitch in the position to break tie votes in the Senate, which has 31 Republicans and 31 Democrats.
The trial court blocked Ravitch from taking office, and the Second Department Appellate Division in Brooklyn affirmed the decision.
But the state’s top court said Paterson had acted within his authority. The Public Officers Law allows the governor to fill a vacant office by appointment “until the vacancy shall be filled by an election.”
The state Constitution further provides that the president pro tem of the Senate should assume the lieutenant governor’s duties “during vacancy or inability.” Chief Judge Lippman underscored that this temporary substitute neither filled nor ended the vacancy.
Skelos and Espada insisted that the office should remain vacant for the rest of the elective term.
The majority judges rejected this interpretation, saying the system was clearly meant “to assure that vacancies are filled.”
Chief Judge Lippman pointed out that leaving the office vacant “risked a scenario … in which the president pro tem of the Senate, quite possibly of a party other than the Governor, would, while performing the duties of the Lieutenant-Governor during a vacancy in the office, actively oppose the Governor’s agenda and frustrate the work of the executive branch.”
In a 23-page dissent, Judge Pigott advanced a slippery-slope argument.
“Under the majority’s rationale,” Pigott wrote, “the possibility exists that the citizens of this State will one day find themselves governed by a person who has never been subjected to scrutiny by the electorate, and who could in turn appoint his or her own unelected Lieutenant-Governor.”
Pigott said such a system violates the state Constitution and “affords the Governors unprecedented power to appoint a successor.”
Judges Ciparick, Read and Jones joined the majority opinion, while Judges Graffeo and Smith joined the dissent.