BROOKLYN (CN) – Gov. David Paterson’s appointment of a lieutenant governor during a state Senate deadlock in July was unconstitutional, a state appeals court ruled Thursday. The decision by a four-judge panel blocked Richard Ravitch from taking office and is another blow to the politically embattled governor whose popularity in Albany has plummeted since he took office upon Eliot Spitzer’s resignation.
The Second Judicial Department of the Appellate Division in Brooklyn upheld a Nassau County Judge’s ruling preventing Ravitch from taking the post, but granted Paterson permission to take the case to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.
Paterson’s bold move came in response to a paralyzing political drama that gripped the state Senate for one month. The Senate was deadlocked at 31-31 after two Democrats defected.
Paterson said the appointment was a response to the political logjam and economic crisis, and that it was not unconstitutional because “there’s nothing in the constitution about it.” Republicans immediately challenged the appointment.
State Senator Pedro Espada’s re-defection to the Democratic Party broke the stalemate and resolved the power struggle. Espada had joined the Republicans in a “coup” against Democratic leadership. He was made Majority Leader under the deal to switch back.
Espada filed the lawsuit along with state Senator and Minority Leader Dean G. Skelos, but has since bowed out.
Paterson moved to dismiss the complaint, saying the senators lacked standing to sue, and that a quo warranto proceeding by the Attorney General was the only way to challenge the appointment.
Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said the move was unconstitutional, but declined to file a lawsuit against Paterson.
Paterson’s attorney’s claimed the state’s Public Officers Law allows governors to fill vacant offices until the next election in instances not specified in state law.
Skelos’ complaint acknowledged that the state constitution is silent on the situation when the lieutenant governor ascends to the office of governor.
Paterson took office in March 2008 when Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned in a prostitution scandal.
But the panel ruled the state constitution calls for the president of the Senate to assume the duties of lieutenant governor during a vacancy.
The 76-year-old Ravitch was former head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
“We have no quarrel with those who say that having a man of Mr. Ravitch’s stature, knowledge, and experience in the office of lieutenant governor would promote the public interest by providing help and counsel to the Governor in difficult times and by bringing much-needed stability to the government of this State,” the panel wrote.
“We conclude, however, that the Governor simply does not have the authority to appoint a lieutenant governor.”