Voting Rights Act
In 2002, the Albany County Legislature created new district lines of its 39 districts, based on population statistics from the 2000 Census. The district that was specifically examined was the 4th district of Albany County. The 4th district lines that existed from 1991 to 2002 included a constituency of 46 percent whites and 54 percent minorities. The geographical reach of this district was centered in the Arbor Hill neighborhood of Albany, an area dominated by minorities. Under the new division, as outlined in Local Law J of 2002, the 4th district expanded in the affluent, predominately white suburb of Loudonville, increasing the white population of the district to 61 percent.
According to the Albany Times-Union this litigation challenging the redistricting of the Albany County Legislature made national legal history. The lawsuit successfully obtained an injunction stopping the redistricting plan and revised lines were drawn and special elections ordered by federal courts.
DerOhannesian & DerOhannesian represented the Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Association (AHCCNA), the Albany chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and individual minority voters in their federal lawsuit against Albany County, claiming that the new division of county districts diluted the voting strength of minority voters by denying them a meaningful participation in Albany County legislative elections.
The legality of the lawsuit was based on Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. Paul DerOhannesian II was joined by Cara Fineman of the Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Mitchell Karlan, partner in the New York City office of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, in representing the plaintiffs. Proving that Local Law J of 2002 unlawfully denied or abridged the voting rights of the 4th district constituents, DerOhannesian & DerOhannesian argued that district lines should have been drawn to create districts that were proportionate to the minority population of Albany County. A similar case was filed in 1991 by the NAACP, following comparable redistricting issues based on the 1990 Census. As a result of that suit, three districts were created to give minorities a greater voice in Albany County Legislature based on the proportion of minorities to whites in those areas. DerOhannesian & DerOhannesian used the ruling of that case and expert opinion to prove that the new 4th district hampered the electoral voice of the minority residents in that district.
Magistrate Judge David R. Homer recommended dismissing the 2002 boundaries, stating that Local Law J of 2002 was illegal because it disproportionately divided Albany’s minority neighborhoods. Important factors that support Judge Homer’s decision under the Voting Rights Act included a history of “racially polarized voting” in Albany County, the lack of minority candidates ever being elected to countywide office in Albany County’s 215-year history, and the failure of any minority candidate to win elections in any predominately white district. Judge Homer also found that the county severely under-counted the number of minorities by limiting the statistics to blacks only. U.S. District Judge Norman Mordue adopted Judge Homer’s recommendations and also decided to postpone elections for one year while a new district map was drawn.
After successfully obtaining a preliminary injunction of the scheduled election, the Albany County Legislature approved a new redistricting plan, Local Law E, which provided four majority/minority districts. DerOhannesian & DerOhannesian and the plaintiffs were not satisfied with the decision, finding that the creation of four districts fractured some neighborhoods too severely and did not provide a large enough percentage of minorities over whites to effect real change. Judge Mordue did not establish an election schedule to compensate for primaries and the general election skipped in 2003 because of the ongoing legal battle. DerOhannesian & DerOhannesian claimed that the hold-over of the 39 previously elected officials (who were elected in 1999 from districts created based on the 1990 Census) created new inequities beyond unfairness to minority voters, as the population of the old districts was no longer balanced. DerOhannesian & DerOhannesian also claimed that the hold-over of the legislature violated both the Voting Rights Act and the “one man, one vote” equal protection clause. On an expedited appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals granted the plaintiffs’ request and ordered a special election for the Albany County Legislature to be conducted promptly.
After significant litigation, Albany County agreed to settle this matter and adopt the plaintiffs’ request that the boundaries of seven of the 39 legislative districts would be revised to accurately reflect and count minority voters. As the prevailing party, the plaintiffs were awarded legal fees under the Voting Rights Act.
For his work in this lawsuit, Mr. DerOhannesian received the Thurgood Marshall Justice Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
DerOhannesian & DerOhannesian remained committed to the case throughout its lengthy battle. There was much pressure to settle the case quickly, as looming elections were approaching quickly, but due to the perseverance of DerOhannesian & DerOhannesian, elections were fairly held under districts that were properly divided to give all citizens an equal voice in Albany County.
DerOhannesian & DerOhannesian has become a leader in defending voting rights and continues to be at the forefront of protecting the civil liberties of constituents in New York State.