Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has never rushed to call special elections to fill vacant legislative posts -- quite the opposite. Last year, he allowed a dozen seats in the State Legislature to remain unoccupied until the November general election, so that some went without incumbents for an entire year.
On Tuesday, a federal judge powerfully prodded Cuomo, for the first time in his tenure, on such a vacancy. If by today the governor hasn't set a date for an election to fill Staten Island's open congressional seat vacated by Rep. Michael Grimm, Judge Jack Weinstein ruled, the court would do so.
"The right to representation in government is the central pillar of democracy in this country. Unjustified delay in filling a vacancy cannot be countenanced," Weinstein wrote.
Now 93, Weinstein has served on the bench since 1967. Cuomo is expected to comply, but at least one expert sees wider implications to the ruling. "It is unusual -- very unusual -- for a federal judge to order a state's governor to take action," said election lawyer Jerry Goldfeder.
Goldfeder noted that while this ruling applies to a House seat, "a lawsuit requiring filling of vacancies might be brought when state legislative seats need to be filled. The import of this decision might be that it is analogized in the state context."
For both House and state legislative vacancies, which are subject to different rules and calendars, the issue boils down to how much latitude a governor has in going the special-election route.
Cuomo has argued all along that holding a slew of off-calendar elections costs millions of dollars -- and that he aims to bring as much efficiency to the process as possible.
"On one hand," Cuomo said Wednesday in the Bronx, "you want to have the special elections right away to fill up a seat so people are represented. On the other hand, the special elections are very expensive to do and we've had a lot of special elections."
In this case, Cuomo said he'd create one special-election day to fill not only the House seat vacated Jan. 5 by Grimm, a Staten Island Republican, after he pleaded guilty to tax evasion, but the Assembly seat of Karim Camara (D-Brooklyn), who was hired last month by Cuomo to run a new Office of Faith-Based Community Development Services.
Cuomo has let other vacancies remain. Nassau County, for example, has two judicial openings -- one in County Court, the other in state Supreme Court -- for which the governor has yet to make appointments pending the November election as he is authorized to do.
How a vacancy is filled, even temporarily, has political impact.
After Charles Fuschillo, a Merrick Republican, quit his Senate seat in December 2013 with a year to go on his term to lead a nonprofit, Cuomo didn't set a special election. The district went without a senator until Michael Venditto (R-Massapequa) was sworn in last month.
Speculation raged all the while about what the delay meant politically. Some said it meant Senate Republicans wouldn't run the risk of having another Democrat elected during the 2014 session. Others thought the delay could help Democrats.
Special elections are special in a couple of ways. They tend to have lower turnout than regular contests. Also, party officials get to nominate candidates for specials without having to worry about primaries.
The key question is whether Weinstein's ruling will resound in Albany, beyond one House seat.