A Suffolk County judge ruled Monday a Democratic redistricting proposal would violate the county charter and blocked the Suffolk County Legislature from voting on such a plan until a bipartisan commission is given a chance to propose new legislative district maps.
Acting Supreme Court Justice Joseph Farneti said that under the county charter, only a reapportionment commission has the authority at this time to propose new district lines for the next decade.
The legislature could enact its own redistricting plan only after Feb. 1, the deadline the charter gives the commission to draw proposed district lines, according to the ruling.
" … the Court finds that any action by the Legislature to independently redraw the legislative district lines prior to February 1, 2022, would be in violation of the clear and unambiguous procedure set forth in the Suffolk County Charter …," Farneti wrote.
Farneti's ruling interrupted a special meeting to vote on the plan Monday morning, causing confusion for legislators and imperiling the measure with less than a week for it to pass. On Jan. 1, all pending legislation expires and Republicans, who oppose the measure, take control of the legislature.
Outgoing Presiding Officer Robert Calarco (D-Patchogue), who proposed the redistricting plan, and outgoing Majority Leader Susan Berland (D-Dix Hills) said they plan to appeal. They noted appellate judges have overturned two previous county court orders temporarily blocking the redistricting plan.
Calarco, who has said his map would create fair and equitable districts and improve representation, said the legislature "acted in accordance with the law and within our authority."
Calarco's proposal would double the number of districts where Black and Latino residents are the majority. It would create nine largely Republican and nine largely Democratic districts. It would also squeeze four Republican legislators into two districts.
Republicans asked the court to block the plan on Dec. 7, arguing it violates the county charter by bypassing a commission.
Calarco said his office had to propose the map without the help of an eight-member reapportionment commission because Berland and Minority Leader Kevin McCaffrey failed to appoint members by a Nov. 10 deadline.
Farneti dismissed that defense, writing that that failure "did not render the entire process invalid," and "the Legislature is not free to disregard a statute they themselves enacted."
Farneti ordered Berland to appoint four commission members. McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst), who is expected to become presiding officer next week when Republicans take the majority, has already appointed four commission members.
Calarco criticized Farneti’s ruling for taking the unusual step of barring the legislature before it acted.
"It sets a very dangerous precedent of courts being able to interject on any kind of issue if the judge decides they don't like what the legislative body is doing," Calarco said.
Farneti wrote that the court can prohibit a legislative body from acting when it "acts or threatens to act without jurisdiction or exceeds its authorized powers in a proceeding over which it has jurisdiction."
McCaffrey, one of the plaintiffs in the case, called Farneti’s ruling a "good decision."
"You win some, you lose some, but this is a winner — at least for now," McCaffrey said.
Calarco said he does not know if the measure can pass after Farneti's ruling.
The appellate division would have to rule in Democrats’ favor with enough time for legislators to provide two-day notice for a special meeting to vote on it.
County Executive Steve Bellone has not said whether he would sign the measure if it passed. County Attorney Dennis Cohen has found the measure would violate the county charter, according to a four-page legal opinion.