NEW YORK, May 27 (Reuters) - Three civil-rights organizations have requested permission to join as defendants in a lawsuit brought by state senators and citizens who wish to block a law changing the way New York's prisoners are counted for census purposes.
The complaint, filed last month in New York Supreme Court in Albany, targets the legislation former Governor David Paterson signed in August 2010, which redefined a prisoner's place of residence as the community in which he or she last lived prior to entering prison. Previously, New York followed the U.S. Census Bureau's practice of counting prisoners as part of the population where their correctional facility is located.
The plaintiffs, led by Senator Elizabeth O'Connor Little (R-45th Dist.), allege that a portion of the new law violates the state constitution, dilutes the votes of certain communities, and enhances the voting power of others.
The law effectively moves "a phantom population of almost 58,000 non-voting prisoners into residences already occupied by others, and from upstate Republican districts to downstate New York City Democratic districts which constitutes political gerrymandering," according to the suit.
The three rights groups -- the NAACP New York State Conference, Voices of Community Activists and Leaders, and Common Cause of New York -- return the charge of gerrymandering, accusing the plaintiffs of trying to count inmates where they are confined, which "artificially inflates the voting strength of those who live in districts where prisons are located, and dilutes the voting strength of every New Yorker who lives in a district that does not house a state prison," according to their motion to join the suit.
"NOT QUIBBLING OVER DOLLARS"
Currently the only defendants to the suit are the New York State Task Force on Demographic Research, which develops the state's redistricting plans, and the state Department of Correctional Services. The new legislation requires the DOC to provide the residential data on prisoners.
The rights groups requested to be added as defendants, their motion states, out of a concern that the named defendants, as state agencies with duties pursuant to the new law, "will not -- indeed cannot be expected to -- adequately represent" the interests the groups contend are at issue.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or LDF, is one of several organizations that would provide counsel if the request to join the suit is granted. Dale Ho, assistant counsel for the LDF, said money is not the issue in the case.
"We're really talking about fairness in the democratic process," Ho said. "We're not quibbling over dollars."
Not counting prisoners as residents of their home communities would cost those communities -- which are often minority communities -- equal representation, Ho said.
Moreover, under state law persons convicted of felony offenses and held in state prisons are not eligible to vote. As a result, Ho said, prisoners are not constituents of those districts.
"The legislators who represent that community don't represent incarcerated people," he said.
The plaintiffs contend that it is fair to count prisoners as residents of the communities where they are incarcerated because they draw upon those communities' municipal services, "including the local courts, hospitals and health services, water, sewer and other infrastructure," the suit said.
The plaintiffs have asked the court to declare the relevant portion of the law unconstitutional, and for a permanent injunction to prevent the task force from counting prisoners anywhere other than where their correctional facility is located.
They also requested an injunction that would keep the DOC from providing the task force with any address other than the prison for each incarcerated person.
The case is Senator Elizabeth O'C. Little et al v. New York State Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment et al, New York Supreme Court, Albany County, No. 2310-211.
For Little et al: David Lewis, Esq.
For New York State Department of Correctional Services: Attorney General of the State of New York.
(Reporting by Jennifer Golson)