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Appeals court nixes Nassau redistricting

A file photo of the Nassau Legislature listening

A file photo of the Nassau Legislature listening to protesters fill the Nassau Legislature chamber to voice their opinions about proposed redistricting. (May 9, 2011) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

ALBANY - ALBANY -- Handing a stinging defeat to Nassau County Republicans, the state's highest court Tuesday threw out new boundaries that the GOP drew for the county's 19 legislative districts this fall.

In a 7-0 decision, the New York State Court of Appeals said that the new redistricting plan "is null and void in connection with" the 2011 county elections and cannot go into effect until 2013 -- reversing a midlevel court ruling. That means that the old district boundaries -- which Democrats favored -- must be used in this fall's elections.

The court determined that the county charter calls for a three-step process before implementing new district lines and that Republicans who control the County Legislature, in their push to get new lines in place before the 2011 contests, failed to comply with the law.

Democrats rejoiced about the reversal. "The Nassau Republicans, in a blatant power grab, attempted to change the rules of the game to their advantage in violation of our county's charter, their own past practices and the spirit of nonpartisan redistricting that the public demands and deserves," Nassau County Democratic chairman Jay Jacobs said in a statement.

He also criticized County Executive Edward Mangano and Peter Schmitt, the Legislature's majority leader, as "guilty yet again of overreaching and using their offices simply to retain power."

Despite the defeat, Republicans noted that the court didn't reject the new district boundaries themselves, but merely the rushed process of adoption. "The court upheld that we followed the guidelines correctly and ruled that the actual redistricting should be used in 2013," said Schmitt (R-Massapequa).

But he omitted a key caveat: The party that wins control of the Legislature this fall will preside over the process to draw the lines for 2013.

Jacobs estimated the tab for the redistricting process -- from the cost of the initial software to draw the new lines to the legal fees -- would be more than $1 million. Schmitt declined to give an estimate.

In rejecting the GOP plan, the Court of Appeals threw out a midlevel court decision and sided with a lower-court ruling in July. In that ruling, acting State Supreme Court Justice Steven Jaeger said district lines could not be implemented until the county completes a process that includes designating a redistricting commission, holding public hearings and adopting the new boundaries at least eight months before the next general election.

The high court agreed.

"Such an integrated interpretation results in an orderly, deliberative process and avoids the prospect of redrawing district lines in two consecutive general elections," the judges wrote.

County Attorney John Ciampoli focused on the fact that the court didn't address the issue of whether the new lines drawn by Republicans adequately protected the voting rights of minorities -- one of the Democrats' claims.

"The new lines eliminated every instance of underrepresentation in the county legislature due to changes in population over the last decade," Ciampoli said. "We are disappointed that the Court of Appeals has told us that we must wait to implement these steps which give the people of Nassau County the full benefit of equal protection."

Hempstead lawyer Frederick Brewington, who represents a group of minority residents who say their voting rights are being violated by the new district lines, said he will keep his case in the federal district court on that issue.

With Sid Cassese and Robert Brodsky

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