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Ralph M. Mohr and Dennis Chapman v. Erie County Legislature

August 4, 2011

RALPH M. MOHR AND DENNIS CHAPMAN, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ERIE COUNTY LEGISLATURE, CHRISTOPHER C. COLLINS, AS COUNTY EXECUTIVE OF THE COUNTY OF ERIE, AND COUNTY OF ERIE,
DEFENDANTS,
AND DENNIS E. WARD, INTERVENOR-DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny Chief Judge United States District Court

DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Ralph M. Mohr commenced this action by filing a complaint with the Clerk of this Court on June 30, 2011. Plaintiff Dennis Chapman commenced an action in New York State Supreme Court, County of Erie, which was removed to this Court on July 1, 2011 and assigned Docket No. 11-CV-560.

At a preliminary conference held on July 21, 2011, this Court issued a bench decision dismissing Plaintiff Chapman's second cause of action. Chapman's sole remaining cause of action alleges the same violation and seeks the same remedy as does Plaintiff Mohr's complaint. Plaintiffs both allege that Defendants' failure to adopt a county legislative redistricting and reapportionment plan for the 2011 election violates the one- person one-vote requirement of the Equal Protection Clause. Both seek a declaratory judgment to that effect, imposition of a court-approved districting plan, and adjustments to the requirements of Article 6 of the New York State Election Law for the 2011 legislative election. In light of the identity of issues, the Court proceeded, on July 21, 2011, to consolidate the cases.

II. BACKGROUND

A. Facts

The facts underlying this action are not in dispute. The County of Erie has adopted a charter form of government, and is governed by both a county executive, elected on a county-wide basis every four years, and a legislative body elected every two years from legislative districts apportioned throughout the county. Presently, the legislature is made up of fifteen members.

The county's legislative districts now are due for reapportionment based on the 2010 federal census. In addition, at the general election conducted on November 2, 2010, Erie County voters approved a local law amending the Erie County Charter to reduce the legislature from fifteen to eleven members effective with the term commencing January 1, 2012.

To adopt a plan for reapportionment and restructuring, the Erie County Legislature is first required to conduct a public hearing and, thereafter, adopt by majority vote a local law defining and describing by metes and bounds the boundaries of each district for the county. Upon passage of the local law, the County Executive must conduct a public hearing and approve or disapprove the local law. A local law that is disapproved is returned to the Legislature, where such disapproval may be overridden by a two-thirds vote. A local law of reapportionment becomes effective upon filing with the office of the Secretary of State.

On June 16, 2011, the Erie County Legislature adopted a plan of reapportionment of eleven legislative districts by an eight to seven majority vote. County Executive Collins notified the Legislature on June 28, 2011 that he had disapproved the local law. To date, that disapproval has not been overridden by a two-thirds vote of the current fifteen members, and all parties agree that such a vote is not expected.

Plaintiffs' claims arise from the facts that there is no districting plan in place for the election of eleven county legislators in November 2011, and deviation among the populations of the fifteen former districts, if updated to reflect the 2010 census, is such that the principle of one-person, one-vote is violated. They seek imposition of a districting plan drawn in conformance with that principle.

In addition, Plaintiffs seek adjustments to the election schedule. This action was commenced three weeks after the first day for signing designating petitions (June 7) for a September 13 primary election, and just ten business days before the last day for filing such petitions (July 14). From the outset, then, it was a virtual impossibility for this Court to appoint a special master to recommend a redistricting plan, or to itself craft a redistricting plan, in a timeframe that would allow for the carrying and filing of designating petitions in accordance with deadlines established under New York's Election Law.

B. Procedural History

This Court was of the belief that the most expeditious first step toward resolving this litigation was to conference with counsel to evaluate their respective positions and differences. The Court did so on July 8, 2011 and July 14, 2011, and it was determined, inter alia, that no facts were in dispute, the parties would not be able to agree on a reapportionment plan for the 2011 election, and there was no opposition to consolidating the two actions.

Counsel then appeared at a preliminary conference on July 21, 2011, at which the Mohr Defendants withdrew their pending motion to dismiss, and the Court ruled from the bench on the Chapman Defendant's motion to dismiss Chapman's second cause of action, consolidated the cases under Docket No. 11-CV-559, set a deadline for the parties to submit to the Court each eleven-district redistricting plan prepared by or presented to the Legislature, with all accompanying narratives, analysis and census data, and set a date for simultaneous briefing on the issue of adjusting ballot access.

All requested submissions have been filed, and this matter is ready for disposition.

III. DISCUSSION

A. Equal Protection

Because both Plaintiffs allege that the current situation-i.e., the absence of a districting plan based on the 2010 census-is unconstitutional, the Court will first discuss the principles underlying their claim.

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Consititution provides that "[n]o state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States . . . ," one such ...


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