Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Lieutenant Governor Ruling a Victory for Paterson and an Argument for Committee Reports

Today, the New York State Court of Appeals ended the final chapter of the Senate coup saga that began nearly four months ago. In an unexpected victory for Governor Paterson, the court ruled that the Governor had the authority to appoint Richard Ravitch as Lieutenant Governor on July 8th. In arguing that the constitutional provision for the Temporary President to perform the duties of Lieutenant Governor is a “short term” solution that “can at best provide only stop gap coverage,” the decision might also be viewed as a victory for those who found distasteful Pedro Espada’s assertions during the coup that as Temporary President, he was entitled to two votes in the Senate.

In the decision, the court relies on the precedent created by Ward v. Curran, the 1943 case in which the court allowed then-governor Dewey to hold a special election to fill a vacancy in the office of lieutenant governor. Motivated by fears that such special elections might allow for a governor and lieutenant governor of opposite parties, threatening the cohesiveness and efficacy of the executive branch, the legislature later changed the law to require that vacancies in the office of lieutenant governor be filled by gubernatorial appointment rather than special election.

The decision necessarily includes discussion of the legislature’s intent in changing the law, something that the courts usually determine by examining committee reports along with debate and hearing transcripts. Hobbled by New York’s weak legislative process, the court must rely on a gubernatorial address rather than legislative records to provide evidence of intent in this case. The dissent contests the majority’s interpretation of legislative intent, stating – again without the benefit of legislative records – that the legislature did not mean for the offices of lieutenant governor and governor to fall under the rubric of the section of the public officer’s law from which Governor Paterson derived appointment authority. Neither side can point to conclusive evidence.

As the majority writes in today's opinion, "the legislature is always free to revisit" the question of how vacancies in the office of Lieutenant Governor are filled. Just another reason to adopt a robust legislative process designed to explore and document the intent behind the laws that will affect New Yorkers for decades to come.

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