Bill Would Limit Courts For Election Law Cases
Last October, with the Nov. 8 election looming, a Republican state Supreme Court justice in Saratoga County halted the counting of absentee ballots by ruling the state Legislature has usurped the state Supreme Court’s jurisdiction when a new state law no longer allowed the court to declare a ballot invalid.
Judge Dianne Freestone’s decision was overturned after Third Department Appellate Court decided Republicans’ challenge to the state election law changes came too late.
If legislation (A.5874/S.350) passed late last week in the state Assembly is signed into law by Gov. Kathy Hochul, judges in small counties like Freestone won’t hear such election law cases. Instead, those challenges will be heard in one of four state Supreme Courts located in New York County, Albany County, Westchester County and Erie County. The Assembly approved the bill by an 82-62 vote, with some Democrats joining Republicans in opposition. The state Senate approved the legislation on Jan. 9.
Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, questioned the bill’s sponsor specifically about Chautauqua County, which for years didn’t have a sitting state Supreme Court justice until the election of Judge Grace Hanlon. Cases in state Supreme Court in Mayville were heard by judges based in Erie County before Hanlon was elected.
“My question is why would an Erie County judge have more expertise when sitting in Buffalo than the same exact judge would have sitting in my county?” Goodell asked Assemblywoman Latrice Walker, D-New York City and sponsor of the bill in the Assembly.
Walker responded the legislation didn’t deal with the assignment of judges to a county but only setting locations where constitutional challenges of election laws can be heard. Walker also wasn’t sure when asked by Goodell how many times election laws had been challenged in court nor problems with local Supreme Court judges handling those cases.
“This bill has just one effect — and that is to force every defendant and every county outside of those four to travel to a court that would otherwise never have jurisdiction without their consent,” Goodell said. “Please. We don’t have any other special constitutional courts. We don’t otherwise require all the dfeendants to travel outside their county hours on end. There’s no rationale reason for this bill other than forum shopping by the state Legislature. For that reason I won’t support it. It’s grossly unfair, unjust and absolutely an abuse of power.”
No Democrat spoke on behalf of the bill other than Walker, who answered questions from several Republicans. Democrat Charles Lavine, D-New York City, was one of the Democrats who voted against A.5874 — but he also called on Republicans to vote with Democrats more often, particularly on issues of women’s rights and LGBTQ issues.
“Democrats voting against this bill, when bills involving the most important aspects of constitutional liberty come before this body, how often, how often, do we see votes on the other side of the aisle voting with us even though I know in your hearts you feel the same way we do?” Lavine asked. “I have voted against this. This is democracy. This is the way it works. For those who have expressed such outrage, what I say is give me a break.”