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Judge throws out ‘prison gerrymandering’ lawsuit

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A state Supreme Court judge in Albany threw out a lawsuit brought by four north country elected officials that challenged the state’s law on counting its prisoners, which could spell redistricting trouble for the north country’s legislative delegation. It was also a setback for Republicans, who are trying to maintain their slim majority in the state Senate.

Judge Eugene P. Devine dismissed the plaintiffs’ arguments that a 2010 law violated the state constitution because it required counting prisoners at their last known home address, instead of at their prison, for the purposes of redistricting. With anemic population numbers, north country legislators whose districts will be redrawn early next year need all the residents they can get to meet constitutional minimums. They just lost thousands.

“Today’s decision by Judge Devine is a victory for fundamental fairness and equal representation,” state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said in a news release.

Republican state Sens. Patricia A. Ritchie, Heuvelton, and Joseph A. Griffo, Rome, were plaintiffs in the suit. Mrs. Ritchie will lose 3,231 residents, mostly to New York City districts, because prisoners no longer are counted in her district. Mr. Griffo would lose 1,842. Mrs. Ritchie declined comment through a spokesman, and Mr. Griffo was unavailable.

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, was not in on the lawsuit, but agreed with its merits. She said the ruling disappointed her.

“There is always a steady population of offenders in our local prisons,” she said. “It would be nice for that to be acknowledged.”

Mrs. Russell’s district is overpopulated, so the 1,872 residents she will lose won’t bring her under the state-mandated minimum of residents in each district. Mrs. Ritchie and Mr. Griffo are already under that minimum, and will sink even lower if the decision is not overturned on appeal. That means their districts may have to get even bigger, straying into unfamiliar and possibly unfriendly political territory.

The plaintiffs are expected to appeal the case. Ogdensburg Mayor William D. Nelson and Jefferson County Legislator Robert D. Ferris, Republicans who represent areas with prisons, also were plaintiffs in the lawsuit. They did not respond to requests for comment.

“We will review the judge’s decision, but regardless of the final outcome of this lawsuit, Republicans will expand our majority in the Senate next year,” said Scott M. Reif, a spokesman for the Senate Republicans.

Senate Republicans hold a 32-30 majority in the upper chamber, but Democrats have a voter registration edge statewide. New legislative districts could mean the difference between a win and a loss in one election.

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