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Wed., Sep. 2
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'Prison Gerrymandering' Sides Ask For Ruling


ALBANY - Plantiffs and defendants alike in the "prison gerrymandering" lawsuit will ask a state Supreme Court justice today to rule immediately in their favor, because their side is right and the other is clearly wrong.
That the expected motions in the court hearing, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. in Albany, mirror one another is hardly a surprise, given the contours of the debate so far in the state's pressing question about where prisoners should be counted for the purposes of redistricting: in their prison cells, or at their last known home address?
Plaintiffs for the case, which will carry out its first in-person motions in considering the summary judgment requests, include state Sens. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton; Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome; Ogdensburg Mayor William D. Nelson and Jefferson County Legislator Robert D. Ferris, R-Watertown. They're arguing that a proper reading of the state's constitution - as well as a thoughtful investigation into what's right and proper - can only lead one to believe that prisoners should be counted as residents of prisons when legislative districts are drawn up. To do otherwise is flagrant gerrymandering.
Defendants are represented by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and including co-defendant Tedra L. Cobb, a former St. Lawrence County legislator. They're arguing that a proper reading of the state's constitution - as well as a thoughtful investigation into what's right and proper - can only lead one to believe that prisoners should be counted as residents of their last known addresses when district maps are drawn. To do otherwise is flagrant gerrymandering.
The issue is especially vexing for north country legislators like Mrs. Ritchie and Mr. Griffo. Each state Senate district has to be roughly the same size, with some leeway. North country districts are relatively small compared to their downstate counterparts, and relative population loss means that they'll have to grow larger to incorporate more residents and meet the state-mandated minimum. If they lose even more residents because large prison populations aren't counted here - 3,231 for Mrs. Ritchie, and 1,842 for Mr. Griffo - their districts will have to grow even larger. They'll have to do that while their legislator neighbors are trying to do the same thing.
But they insist that it's simply a matter of fairness. Prisoners represent a tax on the roads and the water lines, for example, that Northern New Yorkers pay for. So they should be represented here.
Their opponents, on the other hand, argue that because they're behind bars, they're far from members of the community. For example, they can't even vote.
Supreme Court Justice Eugene Devine will hear those arguments today.
The prison-census argument is just one note in the ongoing song and dance on redistricting, which occurs every 10 years with the Census.
The bigger piece of the debate centers around not where people will be counted, but who will do the counting, a question that could also end up before the courts.
LATFOR, a task force made up of state legislators, has carried out the task for decades, but Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and many legislators were elected based on the promise that they would change that. Having incumbents draw their own lines, they argued, only helps create districts that resemble more a salamander (the origin of the word "gerrymander") than a place that represents a continuity of interest.
But, because legislation that would do away with it has stalled in the state Senate, LATFOR is carrying out its work, despite a promise from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to veto its lines.
Mr. Cuomo, in no uncertain terms, said on an Albany radio show last week that he'd veto any lines that LATFOR drew.
"I don't see how a non-independent process can produce an independent product," Mr. Cuomo told Capitol Pressroom's Susan Arbetter. "I therefore would veto a bill that is not an independent product. It would therefore go to the courts."

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