Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Monserrate loses Senate expulsion appeal

Former State Senator Hiram Monserrate lost his expedited appeal that challenges his expulsion from the Senate after he was convicted on a domestic violence offense.

The case is Monserrate v. New York State Senate, decided on March 16. The Senate booted Monserrate after he was convicted. Monserrate sued with the help of noted civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel. The Court of Appeals (Jacobs, Lynch and Restaini) heard the appeal on March 12, a Friday, issuing a lengthy decision the following Tuesday.

This was an appeal from an adverse district court ruling. Monserrate sought an injunction in his favor, requiring a finding that he was likely to succeed on the merits. The primary argument was that the Senate violated the voting rights of Monserrate's constituents in violation of the Constitution. Voting rights cases are decided on a flexible legal standard. While the right to vote is quite valuable, that does not mean the courts review voting rights cases under "strict scrutiny," the heightened judicial review standard where the government nearly always loses. Rather, we have a flexible framework that says that "if the burden imposed is less than severe and reasonably related to the important state interest, the Constitution is satisfied."

Monserrate loses his appeal. His expulsion from the Senate imposed a "less than severe burden." This is because the special election held on March 16 (in which Monserrate ran and lost) will "(i) reduce the amount of time that the voters of the 13th Senatorial District are without representation, (ii) allow those voters to exercise their voting rights anew, and (iii) provide those voters an opportunity to re-elect Monserrate should they choose to do so following his misdemeanor conviction. That there would be no Special Election but for Monserrate’s expulsion, does not diminish the Special Election’s value."

The Court of Appeals next finds that the Senate's justification for giving Monserrate the heave-ho did vindicate an important government interest, i.e., maintaining the integrity of the Senate. This is not a hard call. The Senate is entitled to enforce its zero-tolerance policy against domestic violence. Monserrate's behavior was "incompatible with the duties of the Senate to uphold publoic confidence and promote the administration of justice under law." As his expulsion was reasonable, it does not violate the Constitution.

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