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New York, July 9, 2009 – The controversial decision by Gov. David Paterson to appoint a lieutenant governor and help end the gridlock in the state Senate is allowed under New York’s constitution, said Columbia Law School Professor Richard Briffault, one of the nation’s top state government experts.
Briffault, the Joseph P. Chamberlain Professor of Legislation, said Paterson’s appointment Wednesday of Richard Ravitch is unprecedented but rests on a solid legal foundation.
“The constitution authorizes the legislature to pass laws providing for the filling of vacancies,” Briffault said, “and the legislature has passed a law that says when there is no more specific law, the governor may fill a vacancy in an elective office -- lieutenant governor is an elective office – by making an appointment. That is what the governor has done.”
The lieutenant governor’s role is to preside over the Senate and cast tie-breaking votes and take over for the governor if he is out of the state or unable to serve. The post has been vacant since Eliot Spitzer resigned as governor in March 2008 and Paterson took over.
This latest move was sparked by a revolt in the Senate, where Democrats held a slender 32-30 majority. One Democrat defected to the Republican side on June 8, leaving the Senate paralyzed as both parties continue to spar over who is in control.
Briffualt noted the state constitution does not allow for a special election for lieutenant governor in the belief that the governor and lieutenant governor “serve as a team.” However, it still allowed lawmakers the opportunity to provide for filling a vacancy, he said.
“The governor’s appointment of a lieutenant governor is actually entirely consistent with the idea of the governor and the lieutenant governor serving as a team,” Briffault said.
Paterson said he also moved to appoint Ravitch because of questions over who could take over if was unable to serve. The Senate president is next in line to succeed the governor after the lieutenant governor. But the squabbling by both parties has left the line of succession murky at best.
“Until now it was always clear who the temporary president of the Senate was,” Briffault said. “Now that has been totally unclear for more than a month. The governor’s action resolves that problem by making it less important.”
Briffault is among several prominent legal experts working with the groups Citizens Union and Common Cause to support Paterson’s appointment. Briffault also serves as vice chair of Citizen Union’s board of directors.
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