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After losing their federal lawsuit challenging the City Council’s right to overturn term limits for Mayor Bloomberg, advocates are turning to the federal government.
Last month veteran civil rights attorney (and current candidate for public advocate) Norman Siegel, along with the corporate law firm Gibson and Dunn, sent a fifty-page letter to the Justice Department asking them to consider whether the overturn violates the federal Voting Rights Act. Under the Act, the Justice Department must approve all changes to voting law to ensure that the results of that change don’t end up discriminating against minorities.
Siegel is no stranger to using the Voting Rights Act — when he headed the New York ACLU, he brought many similar suits. One cannot say the same for his Gibson and Dunn partner in this effort, Randy Mastro, a former deputy mayor under Giuliani. At the NYACLU, Siegel sued Mastro many times. But now Siegel says the two are getting along just fine.
As Clyde Haberman explained in an excellent New York Times column, the city has argued that the overturn doesn’t injure minority voters because two-thirds of the City Council’s minority legislators voted for it. (Haberman says that, unlike Bloomberg , even Venezuelan despot Hugo Chavez put term limits to public referendum before overturning it.)
Siegel says his letter used the five previous citywide elections and expert testimony to make his case.
Mastro and Siegel are also taking their original case to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals later this month. That suit, lost in January, argues that extension of term limits violates voters’ First Amendment rights. Mastro and Siegel also argue that term limits can’t be overturned without a public referendum, and that the vote represented a conflict of interest on the part of the City Council because they were essentially making decisions about own careers. Siegel still thinks it overrides the people’s will. “Those 29 people nullified hundreds of thousands of people’s votes,” Siegel told the Voice.
As of now the attorneys are waiting to hear from the DOJ about their letter, which Gibson and Dunn so far have not released to the press, saying they’re waiting for permission from their clients before doing so. (The clients are largely civil rights groups.) We hope to have an update soon. Photo (cc) Thomas Good.