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The New York Court of Appeals today declined to hear plaintiffs’ direct appeal in Little v. LATFOR, a lawsuit challenging New York’s law ending prison-based gerrymandering. The plaintiffs — who include upstate elected officials who would no longer unjustly benefit from claiming incarcerated people as residents of their districts — had sought to skip the Supreme Court’s Appellate Division and go directly to the Court of Appeals.
In December, New York Supreme Court Justice Eugene Devine ruled that the law was constitutional. Plaintiffs’ appeal will now proceed to the Appellate Division Third Department.
Attorneys for the 15 voters from around New York State who joined the suit as intervenor-defendants issued the following joint statement:
“Today’s decision leaves in place New York’s law ending prison-based gerrymandering, which advances fairness in redistricting and is in complete agreement with New York’s state constitution. The opponents of this law lost the policy debate in the legislature, and their efforts to reinstate the old unjust practice of prison-based gerrymandering have so far been unsuccessful in the courts. We look forward to defending this vital law at the appellate division.”
The organizations representing the 15 voters in court were the Brennan Center for Justice, the Center for Law & Social Justice, Dēmos, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the Prison Policy Initiative.
About Prison-Based Gerrymandering
There are dramatic examples of prison-based gerrymandering in upstate counties and cities. For example, half of a council ward in the city of Rome, New York is incarcerated. As a result, the actual residents of that ward wield twice the influence of other city residents. Recognizing the distortions caused by prison-based gerrymandering at the local level, 13 New York counties with large prisons — including four in plaintiff Senator Little’s district — have historically exercised their discretion to remove the prison populations prior to redistricting.
The new law brings consistency to redistricting in New York, prohibiting the state and all local governments from giving extra political influence to districts that contain prisons. Sen. Little’s lawsuit sought to have the new legislation struck down, the effect of which would require legislative districts — including her own, which contains 12,000 incarcerated persons — to include prisons when redistricting, to the detriment of all other districts without prisons.
Returning to this practice would have unfairly inflated districts containing prisons to the detriment of everyone else and would have violated the New York State Constitution. In addition, many areas containing large minority communities have been disproportionately affected by this practice, effectively diluting the votes of minority communities. The enactment of Part XX was considered a major civil rights achievement for New York State.
A majority of New Yorkers support counting incarcerated people in their home districts.